11/25/2014 04:56 pm ET Updated Jan 25, 2015

How the Honey Bee Health Coalition Is Helping the Honey Bee Crisis

After posting the article I wrote in May 2014 called The Latest Buzz: The Decline of Bees is Harming Global Agriculture, I later learned that this worldwide problem is gathering attention from experts forming what is known as The Honey Bee Health Coalition, which includes over 30 different organizations from across the food chain such as bee keepers, farmers, food companies, conservationists, scientists, as well as others.

I was fortunate to interview two members of the coalition: Bill Kuckuck, executive vice president and chief operating officer for CropLife America and Peter Berthelsen, director of Habitat Partnerships for Pheasants Forever, Inc. Both are members of the Coalition's steering committee.

The members of the coalition collaborate as an integrated agricultural unit to field outcome-based programs that will make real progress on the four main goals: Hive Management, Forage and Nutrition, Crop Pest Management, and Cross-Industry Education, Outreach and Coordination.

Currently this roadmap is under discussion with the Secretary of Agriculture and the EPA administrator who work in their capacity as co-chairs of the president's task force on pollinator health.

Perhaps this roadmap can be viewed as our own personal outline for what all of us as a society can do to improve honey bee health but only when we know how the major players of the bee food chain interact and the knowledge we already know or have access to. Brisco White, owner of The Grower's Exchange, a farm fresh herb provider understands the important role of a home gardener. He says, "one thing a home gardener can do to help honey bees is to grow herb plants. Flowering herb plants attract bees because they are loaded with pollen and nectar. Herb plants are not hybrids, and retain all the natural vigor. The Grower Exchanges herb garden is alive with bee activity all summer, their activity fills the air with the buzzing and humming of insect feeding on the herb plants. Something in our garden must be good, because they never seem to notice us."

Bill Kuckuck

Dorit Sasson: What are some specific plans for improving collaboration and communication throughout the food chain and with the general public regarding the Bee Healthy Roadmap?

Bill Kuckuck: The first step is a common understanding of the problem. The Honey Bee Health Coalition has played a big role in just getting the major players together around the same table: beekeepers, scientists, companies, farmers, regulators, etc. to take a hard look at the science and prioritize where to take action. Now we've created a framework for launching pilot programs and/or scaling existing programs that specifically address each of the major causes of declining health.

Let me give you two examples:

1) One of the biggest problems facing beekeepers of all sizes, from urban hobby beekeepers to commercial beekeepers, is controlling the Varroa destructor mite. There's a not a lot of definitive information out there about what works and what doesn't. We're producing a guide that will advise beekeepers on what techniques they can best use.

2) We're incubating a "Bee Understanding" pilot program that will let different players in agriculture swap jobs. A farmer and a pest control applicator will shadow a beekeeper and vice versa. They'll get to walk a mile in the other guy's boots and see the challenges they face. In addition to raising awareness and improving collaboration, we expect this program to produce tangible insights and innovations as a farmer might see ways s/he could help and vice versa. We'll also package up the insights and lessons and share them with ongoing continuing education programs and with the general public so they can learn better understand the role of bees in modern agriculture.

[Writer's note: I just love the idea of this pilot program because it gives a real hand's on approach on each other's role, which is important for forming greater partnerships.]

Dorit Sasson: Is it possible to promote understanding across stakeholders on such a subject where the general public may once have thought,"well, this doesn't exactly affect me" to "Now, there's a serious problem that needs my attention."

BIll Kuckuck: That's the whole point of the Coalition. We have representatives from throughout the food chain from "seed to mouth" and we're working with them to reach people they can engage in solving the problems, from individual beekeepers to small farmers to large agricultural companies to consumers. The Bee Healthy Roadmap lays out four goals that anyone interested in helping can align their efforts around:
1) Put the best tools, techniques, and technology in the hands of beekeepers so they can best manage their hives.
2) Ensure honey bees -- especially in and around production agriculture -- have access to a varied and nutritious diet throughout their lives
3) Control crop pests and safeguard pollinator health
4) Work together to improve honey bee health

The Coalition will track and report progress against these four goals.

Peter Berthelsen

Dorit Sasson: Regarding identifying forage and nutrition, this seems like a complex process. What higher ups will be responsible for ensuring high-quality, bee-friendly landscapes? Will there be government intervention?

Peter Berthelsen: This will take action at a variety of levels. There are things that private landowners can do on their own without government action and we're working to build awareness among them now. In addition, representatives from the USDA and EPA are ex officio participants so that we can actively collaborate on these issues.

Dorit Sasson: Will members of the coalition work directly with farmers and agricultural experts to ensure high quality nutrition and bee-landscapes?

Peter Berthelsen: We're working to raise awareness among farmers and other private and public landowners about what they can do to improve access to high quality bee forage on their lands.

As one can see, these members are working hard to educate the public on a variety of issues relating to the honey bee crisis. One would hope that over time, a higher level of awareness will result in a huge collective action in support of the honey bee crisis.