FARGO-Bob Morlock finds himself driving farther afield to tend his scattered beehives. He travels a circuit of several counties in southeastern North Dakota and Minnesota.
The reason for his farflung bee colonies: It's getting more difficult to find suitable locations-near fields with blossoming plants that provide pollen and nectar for his bees-because of changes in farming.
More and more farmers are growing crops like corn and soybeans, which are pesticide-intensive and don't blossom, instead of hay or alfalfa. Beekeepers blame the loss of conservation acres under a lapsed federal program and the biofuels boom, where corn and soybeans are turned into ethanol or biodiesel, for a loss of bee-friendly pastureland.
"The farmers are just doing what they have to do," said Morlock, who is based in Casselton and keeps more than 200 bee yards, or apiaries. "Agriculture has changed. Nobody raises cattle anymore."
Morlock isn't alone in bemoaning the changing agricultural landscape and how it affects honey production and crop pollination.
Researchers with the U.S. Geological Service's Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center near Jamestown have documented the increasing problems beekeepers in North Dakota and South Dakota-which support more than 40 percent of the nation's commercial honey bee colonies-face in finding suitable locations for their apiaries.
The scientists found that suitable locations in the region are decreasing, and crops beekeepers strive to avoid, such as corn and soybeans, are becoming more common in areas with high densities of bee yards.
"Habitat is everything," said Clint Otto, lead researcher for the study, which will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And good habitat for bees is in serious decline, Otto's team found.
Researchers documented a continual increase in biofuels crops totaling almost 3 million acres from 2006 to 2014, the period in the study, around apiaries, mainly in the Prairie Pothole region of the Dakotas.
The loss of bee habitat accelerated in 2007, Otto said, when a federal renewable fuel standard was set, providing a significant boost to the biofuels industry, and increasing the demand for corn and soybeans.
Besides a decrease in honey production, the loss of good apiary areas has major implications for the nation's food supply, Otto said. That's because many of the bee colonies based in the Dakotas are taken to California or other warm states in the winter, where they are important crop pollinators.
"Insect pollinators are critically important for maintaining global food production and ecosystem health, and U.S. insect pollination services have an estimated annual value of $15 billion," Otto said.
It takes a staggering number of bee colonies to do the job. Pollinating crops, including almonds, in California's Central Valley requires 1.5 million to 2 million bee colonies. So a loss of bee habitat in the Northern Plains can have far-reaching effects, Otto said.
So far, Otto's team has studied how beekeepers have responded to encroachment on bee habitat. More research needs to be done to determine if bee health has been adversely affected.
"The science isn't there yet," he said. "This is a potential alarming trend that we need to investigate further."
One of Otto's colleagues, Matthew Smart, has investigated the effect of land use on bee health. The more cultivated land in agricultural monoculture, the less healthy bees are at the end of summer, a weakened condition that persists into winter and beyond.
"This is a societal concern," Otto said. For decades, wildlife biologists and ecologists have documented the importance of prairie, and the resulting loss of wildlife when habitat disappears. Otto, a biologist who began his career studying wildlife, now is applying some of the methods for studying wildlife habitat to pollinators.
By one estimate, one of every three bites of food is attributed to insect pollinators.
"We very much need these pollinators," Otto said. "We need them healthy."
In his corner of southeastern North Dakota and Minnesota, Morlock has seen more changes from the loss of conservation land than from an increase in corn and soybeans from the drive for biofuels. He's seen a lot of changes in his 40-plus years of keeping bees.
"It's just the changing times," he said.