PENDLETON — Honeybees and pesticides are mortal enemies. They are also among a farmer’s very best friends. Wouldn’t it be something if we could help them get along?

Clemson University specialists are experimenting with a way to do just that.

They’ve established a pilot program for beekeepers and pesticide applicators to compare notes online in an effort to reduce accidental poisoning of honeybees and their hives.

“We’re trying to protect the honeybee. That’s what this is all about,” said Brad Cavin, who leads apiary inspections for the Department of Plant Industry, a Clemson unit that carries out state regulatory functions. “We want to develop a partnership of farmers, beekeepers, pesticide applicators to identify where bee yards are located.”

Jennifer Tsuruda

Jennifer Tsuruda, Clemson’s Extension and research bee specialist, works with S.C. beekeepers to help minimize honeybee exposure to pesticides.
Image Credit: Clemson University

About 70 beekeepers from across the state have signed up to take part in the voluntary program, said Jennifer Tsuruda, Clemson’s Extension and research bee specialist.

“It allows beekeepers to indicate where their bees are and applicators to indicate where they will be making pesticide treatments,” Tsuruda said. “By making this information available online, applicators could stop within a certain distance of the bees or beekeepers could move their hives or close their hives to reduce the risk of exposure.”

Though pesticides are essential in reducing insect and disease attacks on food crops, chemicals can’t distinguish between the bad bugs and the good ones. And honeybees are clearly the good ones — an essential pollinator for up to a third of food we humans eat.

“Pesticides may not kill bees directly, but can weaken the bee, making it more susceptible to other threats like the varroa mite,” said Tim Drake, state programs manager for the Department of Pesticide Regulation at Clemson. “We haven’t had a lot of bee kills in South Carolina that are directly related to pesticides, but we’re at the edge of exploration of what’s causing these problems with colony decline.”

The pilot program uses a system similar to the one adopted last year by the Department of Plant Industry to file mobile reports on plant nursery inspections directly — and immediately — from the nursery. The online Kelly Products Inc. system was adapted to allow beekeepers, farmers and pesticide applicators to match locations of hives and areas that will receive pesticide applications.

The system is password protected for confidentiality and privacy; beekeepers can log into the system to load geographic data on their hives and see planned pesticide applications nearby without anyone other than pesticide applicators accessing their information or hive locations.

The pilot program will be evaluated to see if it will be effective on a larger scale. At any given time, about 3,000 beekeepers — most of them part-time — manage roughly 25,000 to 30,000 honeybee colonies in South Carolina. Honeybee health — and the number of bees available for pollination — is an ongoing concern as much in South Carolina as it is globally.

“With the number of colonies we have commercially it’s still a strong industry in the state, but there’s not a lot of buffer in terms of what we need for pollination,” Tsuruda said, noting the pressure on honeybee populations from diseases, pests and pesticides. “Bee health is affected by a combination of things, and that combination will change over time and from place to place. It’s a complicated web of factors.”

Improving bee health is essential to an aspect of agriculture that humans first cultivated more than four millennia ago. Honeybees are valued not only for their honey and local pollination of crops, but as hired labor in other regions: A number of S.C. beekeepers supply hives to pollinate crops elsewhere, including the almond groves of California.

“A lot has been made of the global decline in honeybee populations. Risks from pesticides are just one element in that equation, but they’re something we believed we could address,” said Steve Cole, director of Regulatory Services. “It’s largely a matter of bringing together the people who are involved — beekeepers, farmers and pesticide applicators — and also the Clemson specialists in research, Extension and state regulatory programs. It involves a lot of people all centered on a common goal: protecting the pollinators that we all rely on.”