Washington's most important insect

It’s hard to imagine, but every time we eat an apple, pear or cherry, that piece of fruit started with a visit by a bee carrying pollen.

It takes an enormous amount of effort to pollinate all that fruit. In 2013, Washington grew 2,975,000 tons of apples, 434,000 tons of pears and 169,000 tons of cherries.

Just these crops alone were worth $2.8 billion in sales that year! The Washington Department of Agriculture estimated in 2007 that one colony of bees insured the production of $11,068 worth of fruit. Bees are also important for the pollination of alfalfa, apricots, plums, peaches, canola, sunflowers and other flowers, vegetable seeds and cranberries in Washington. Because Washington agriculture supports so many jobs across the state, the importance of bees to our state cannot be overstated. 

Beekeepers and growers work together.

Because of the invaluable service bees perform for growers in Washington, they must work in very close communication with beekeepers. Growers regularly contact beekeepers to discuss strategies for applying pesticides in a safe manner that won’t hurt the foraging bees. This relationship between agricultural producers and beekeepers is vital to the success of Washington agriculture.

Learn all about Washington grown honey.


When the crop is coming into bloom, hives are transported to the orchard or field to ensure pollination.

It's not easy to be a bee.

Pollinators are facing a number of challenges that threaten their survival. Because of the crucial role they play to the food supply of our country, federal agencies are creating strategies to promote the health of honey bees and other pollinators. Beekeepers are working diligently to understand these threats and overcome them.

Beekeepers and researchers at WSU

According to  Dr. Steve Sheppard PhD, WSU Bee research expert, and others, the Varroa destructor mite (seen on a developing baby bee at right) has been devastating beehives in the northwest since the 1980’s. Every year, the losses to commercial beekeepers have been increasing. By 2006, the rate of loss had increased to 30%. These tiny, rust-colored mites invade the hives and feed on the infant bees while laying their eggs. They infect the bees with viruses that cause the emerging young bees to have deformed wings preventing them from flying. Within two years, a beehive will be destroyed unless a beekeeper intervenes. Because the mites reproduce so rapidly, they have been developing resistance to pesticides designed to control them.

Natural medicine for bees?

Several promising solutions to help the honeybees prevail against the mites are being tested.  Dr. Sheppard is working toward developing a medicinal “soup” derived from extracts of a  fungus that rots wood. The fungus contains compounds that are harmless to bees yet reduce the amount of associated viruses mites pass on to the bees.

A vacation may be just what they need.

Another idea to protect bees is to put the hives into controlled atmosphere storage, where the levels of carbon dioxide and oxygen available to the bees can be controlled. Eric Olson, former owner of one of the state’s largest commercial pollination services, has had success with this method. Controlled atmosphere storage is frequently used for storing tree fruit. It causes bees go into hibernation for 60 days. All activity ceases and the varroa mites in the hive have no new places to lay their eggs. While indoors, the bees are protected from predators like skunks, extreme weather and vandalism. After their two-month rest, the bees, who have maintained their body-weight, are ready to start a new season of foraging and honey production while pollinating crops from California to Washington.

Can a computer save the bees?

Another solution involves using a compostable circuit board which applies heat at a certain stage of bee development. The increase in temperature effectively sterilizes the mites but doesn’t harm bees. This electronic device, known as “Mite-not” is being developed by the Washington-based, innovation company Eltopia.

Developing bee larvae

You can help bees stay strong by increasing their forage and habitat.

In some areas, bees struggle to find enough forage to keep up with the giant task they perform. You can help by planting pollinator-friendly plants. Contact the WA State Noxious Weed Control Board for free packets of non-invasive flower seeds mixed especially for bees, butterflies and more. Below are three suggested native plants bees love!

Oregon grape

Native aster

Common camas

Garden plants that are good bee forage include: Anise, Asters, Black-eyed Susan, Borage, Catnip, Clover, Coreopsis, Coriander/Cilantro, Cornflower, Corn Poppy, Cosmos, Forget-me-not, Hyssop, Lemon Balm, Mints, Mustards, Kale, Phacelia and Sedum. Herbs that fully flower are a powerhouse of important nutrients for honeybees and many other pollinators.  You will be amazed at the number of pollinators that visit if you let these plants fully flower: thyme, oregano, lavender, basil, mint, coriander/cilantro, sage (especially Russian), and other culinary herbs.

“So maybe it seems like a really small countermeasure to a big, huge problem – just go plant flowers—but when bees have access to good nutrition, we have access to good nutrition through their pollination services
.” Marla Spivek, Distinguished McNight University Professor of Entomology, University of Minnesota