Organic Grant initiative on Bee Health

Publicity about the ‘plight’ of honey bees have been a “key” to freeing of federal grant monies for beekeeping research/extension. Coining of the term CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) in 2006 and Time Magazine cover “Plight of the Honeybees,” 2013 [Time labelled the situation Bee Apocalypse] helped “others” to see the seriousness of our colony loss situation. Funding, such as the CAP grant to 17 Universities, the BIP grant, the Michigan State Integrated Crop Pollination Initiative, the Obama White House Federal Pollination Bee Health Task Force and Oregon State University Bee Health initiative, among others, all have had drawn significant “new” funding from diverse sources.

A Federal grant to Penn State in late 2017 from the Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative (OREI) has been awarded (~$1 million over 3 years) to conduct a stakeholder-driven, integrated systems-based project to rigorously simultaneously test the effect of organic, chemical-free and conventional honey bee management practices as the impact honey bee health. The grant title is “Working Toward Best Management Practices for Organic Beekeeping: A Side-By-Side Comparison of Management Systems.” My former UD honors student Robyn Underwood, an Assistant Research Professor at Penn State University, is helping coordinate the project for Penn State Extension specialist Margarita Lopez-Uribe and project co-director Brenna Traver, assistant professor of Biology at Penn State Schuylkill.

Of particular interest, in an initial stakeholders workshop in mid-November, three participatory groups were established to collect basic information. Beekeepers that are willing to use any product on the market to maintain healthy parasite-free colonies, initially called conventional, re-named their group as ‘Adaptive Beekeeping’ because they are flexible in their decision making. The second group comprised of beekeepers that do not use synthetic pesticides or antibiotics in their hives, only using naturally-occurring chemicals, such as formic or oxalic acid to treat pests and mechanical/management  methods, identified themselves as the ‘Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Non-Synthetic Management Beekeeping’ group. The third beekeeper group, comprised of beekeepers who are unwilling to apply ‘non-bee’ derived products to the colony, relying on the bees’ natural mechanisms and their genetic stock, only intervening with mechanical techniques when emergencies arise, identified themselves as the ‘Holistic Chemical Free Beekeeping’ group.

Additional objectives of the study include quantifying pesticide residues in beeswax from colonies in the three management systems, developing a cost-benefit economic assessment of these systems, and establishing a long-term extension program to assist stakeholders who seek to incorporate alternative beekeeping management systems.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) administers the OREI program; former OSU administrator Sonny Ramaswamy remains Director. Sonny says “These NIFA investments help develop tools necessary for traditional farmers to pursue organic farming, and help boost the economic gains for existing organic farmers and ranchers.” In FY 2017, 24 new OREI and Organic Transitions Program (ORG) grants (available only to Universities), totaling $20.15 million, were awarded. To date, NIFA has awarded more than $183 million through the OREI and ORG programs. Oregon State University has garnered some of the funding, more recently for organic barley and development of a Masters level Organic Agriculture degree program. Unfortunately, the Organic grants program will need more funding (within 2018 Farm bill) to continue further grants.

According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, Oregon had 461 organic farms in 2016, spanning 105,000 acres of cropland. Of that total, 121 farms grew organic vegetables. Oregon ranks fourth in the country in organic production, behind only California, Washington and Pennsylvania. Half of all organic blueberries grown in the U.S. come from Oregon and Washington, an increase from just 2% ten years ago. Demand continues to grow, around 10-12 percent per year.

Getting into organic farming, for anyone who has investigated it, requires extensive documentation to receive certification. Organic farmers face a steep learning curve in adopting specific approved practices. Certification is done through the Oregon Department of Agriculture or groups such as Oregon Tilth. Things like conventional pesticides, synthetic fertilizer and antibiotics are not allowed on organic farms, and farmers need to show that they have not used any unapproved substances for at least three years before they can be certified. Hopefully the Penn State study will make it easier to enable organic minded beekeepers advance toward certification.