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Featured Article - July/August 2018

  Tennessee State Parks Honey Bee Project

  By Chris Warren    

Mark Matzkiw and Mike Croley of Henry Horton State Park inspect a honeybee frame during installation. Photo Courtesy of

The European honey bee (Apis mellifera) was introduced to North America when the first European settlers came to America in the 1600s. Although the European honey bee is not a native insect to the United States, it has become a crucial partner with the U.S. for our agricultural needs. Approximately one third of all the food Americans eat is directly or indirectly derived from honey bee pollination.

Sixteen states have named the European honey bee as their “state insect” and the state of Tennessee has specifically designated it as the “state agricultural insect.” The honey bee has become an important factor to U.S. agriculture in both pollination of crops and in production of honey.

The University of Tennessee Institute Of Agriculture reports that the value of crops benefitting from honey bee pollination exceeds $500 million annually in Tennessee with approximately 35,000 registered colonies. Many crops utilize several types of methods to pollinate, but in some cases, certain crops such as blueberries and cherries are 90 percent dependent and almonds are entirely dependent on the honey bee for pollination.

Pollination is a process where plants receive pollen from another plant of the same species so they can reproduce by forming new seeds. Depending on the plant, this can be accomplished through the wind, insects, or small animals. The honey bee completes plant pollination inadvertently when they are collecting pollen and nectar from the plant for their food. When the honey bee moves from one flower to the next collecting their food, they pick up some of the pollen in their body hairs that is then rubbed off onto the next flower completing the plant pollination process. The nectar that they collect from the plant is brought back to their hive and transformed into honey. This food source for the honey bee is also collected and enjoyed by humans.

In 2016, the National Agricultural Statistics Service Annual Honey report indicated that approximately 162 millionvpounds of honey worth $335 million was produced in the U.S. with Tennessee contributing 330,000 pounds worth about $1.5 million. These statistics on honey worth as well as the statistics on crop pollination value demonstrate the importance the honey bee plays in our agriculture market.

The recent decline in honey bee population has become a major concern to our agriculture and economic markets. In an interview by The Ledger in 2015, Dr. John Skinner, University of Tennessee Apiarist, stated that there are many culprits to this decline. Some of these causes are a combination of stressors that include: poor bee nutrition, loss of forage lands, parasites, pathogens, pesticides and lack of genetic diversity. Although there is not a consensus on what is exactly killing the honey bee, there is data showing honey bee losses in the U.S. as well as in Tennessee over the last decade. According to Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Consumer and Industry Services Division, Plant Certification/Apiary Section Summary 2008–2018 report, the average annual honey bee colony loss in Tennessee over the last 10 years was about 42 percent and last year’s losses were at a staggering 80 percent. There have been similar reports throughout the country with honey bee losses prompting many private and public sector organizations to research what is killing the honey bee as well as methods to save the honey bees.

Tennessee State Parks’ Vision
Tennessee State Parks is launching a project this year that promotes the survival of honey bees. The Honey Bee Project will install an apiary in approximately 50 percent of Tennessee State Parks over a three year period. The initial six parks selected are Pickwick Landing, David Crockett, Montgomery Bell, Henry Horton, Hiawassee & Ocoee Rivers, and Roan Mountain. These parks were selected for several reasons including geographical location, having past or existing apiaries, or having experienced beekeepers at the park. These factors provide the opportunity to successfully sustain the apiary and potentially create profit from honey bee product sales and educational program fees. All profits will be initially invested into the program to enhance current apiary operations. Future funding sources will be maintained through the Tennessee State Parks Conservancy.

Project Benefits
Besides promoting honey bee survival, additional benefits include native plant pollination, community education, state research projects and the production of Tennessee State Parks branded honey bee products. Native plants have been a focus of state parks and natural areas to protect and encourage their growth. The honey bee addition in the parks will improve pollination and propagation of these plants. As Tennessee State Parks continue to educate communities with the historical and natural resources that each park offers, the honey bee project will add another natural resource to their park to educate the public on both our honey bee and native bees’ direct effect on our food systems. Not only will there be education on the benefits of honey bees but also on their life cycle and how to keep bees.

A growing number of research studies are intended to explore what is affecting the existence of the honey bee. As the project begins to establish apiaries, the parks will share results and best practices with others.

Another benefit is the opportunity to collect honey and bee wax from the hives. These products will be branded under the Tennessee State Parks name and be sold in the parks.

Project Collaboration
The effort to successfully implement this project involves multiple collaborative partners throughout Tennessee. Currently in the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, there are several groups coordinating efforts, including: Tennessee State Parks operations, Recreation and Education Services, the Tennessee State Parks Conservancy, the Office of Policy and Sustainable Practices, and marketing/grant divisions. 

Other partners in this endeavor outside of TDEC are the parks’ Friends groups, Tennessee Rehabilitative Initiative in Corrections (TRICOR) that will be providing honey bee hive components that are built and assembled at the Bledsoe County Facility through their inmate release programs; and the Tennessee Department of Agriculture’s State Apiarist, Mike Studer, is consulting on the project. He will share project efforts with the Tennessee Beekeeping Association and its members.

If you are interested in supporting this project, call the Tennessee State Parks Conservancy at 615-475-8772, or donate online here, and in the notes section specify “Honey Project.” To donate by check, please mail it to: Tennessee State Parks Conservancy, P.O. Box 190640, Nashville, TN 37219.

More information about beekeeping can be found at Tennessee Beekeeper Association.

(Deputy Director of TDEC’s Office of Talent Management, Chris Warren is a six year veteran beekeeper who lives in Gallatin and is currently at work on his Master Gardener certification.)


Native Bees: Unsung Heroes of Nature and Agriculture

By Matt Heard and Steve Murphree

Over the last few years, the warning cries have sounded for honey bees. There have been numerous articles about colonies collapsing and how the loss of these bees will devastate food production in the United States. The fear behind this collapse is real given that honey beesvenable production of at least 90 different commercial crops grown in the U.S. In addition, they provide more than $15 billion dollars annually in benefits from pollination alone.

However, the unsung heroes of nature and agriculture are the 4,000 other species of bees that are native to the United States. They range in size from the smallest bee, Perdita minima that is only 2mm in size, to the big carpenter bees we find roaming around our backyards. These native bees vary in shape, size, and color. They also vary in where they nest, when they are active, and in what flowers they pollinate. But their importance to our everyday lives cannot be overemphasized. Native bees pollinate more than 80 percent of our flowering plants, according to the 2010 44-page booklet book Bee Basics – An Introduction to Our Native Bees by Beatriz Moisset and Stephen Buchman, published by the USDA Forest Service and the Pollinator Partnership. Native pollinators as a whole provide more than $9 billion dollars in agricultural benefits, according to “The White House Fact Sheet: The Economic Challenge Posed by Declining Pollinator Populations, June 2014.”

Despite these huge benefits, these native species often go unnoticed. For example, in Tennessee we have no comprehensive list of native bees that call our state home. In addition, we have no idea in many cases if species of native bees are increasing or decreasing in population size. The sole exception is for large bees like the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee (Bombus affinis) whose range extends into Eastern Tennessee and is now the first bee listed on the Endangered Species list.

Part of the reason for this may be that, unlike honey bees and bumble bees, most native bees do not exist in large colonies. Instead, they make nests in the ground (Mining Bees), use hollow stems or holes made by other insects in dead wood (Mason and Leafcutter Bees), or even drill their own holes in logs or your deck (Carpenter Bees.)

In addition, they often vary in color and pattern from honey bees and can look more like flies or wasps. For example, there are metallic green sweat bees (Agapostemon spp.) and bright blue bees that pollinate fruit trees (Osmia lignaria and other Mason Bees.) Another lesser known fact is that most native bees do not actually sting people or even have stingers. As a result, many bee researchers argue that because they are not bothering us, we often fail to notice them.

So what can we do to protect and promote these important species? Well, it turns out that there is a lot we can do. The first is to promote native plants, which have co-evolved over time with bees and provide them with food. The second is to recognize the importance of these species and to take the time to get to know what bee species visit the plants in our yards and parks. Third, we can place and maintain artificial “pollinator housing” using paper-lined cardboard tubes, bamboo, etc. in our yards to attract Mason and Leafcutter Bees. The fourth is to realize that all the things we do that could harm honey bees may also be harming our native bees. And finally, we may just need to give them our thanks, because without native bees, many of the beautiful flowering plant species we see across Tennessee would disappear.

(Matt Heard is an ecologist, assistant professor of biology and director of the Environmental Science Program at Belmont University. Steve Murphree is an entomologist and professor of biology at Belmont University. He has authored or co-authored several articles for The Tennessee Conservationist about Tennessee’s insects. Read more about “Befriending Our Native Bees” in the July/August 2017 issue in an article by Joy Stewart.)


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Also In This Issue

  • Finding Arches by Water at Pickett CCC Memorial State Park    
  • Hummingbird and Butterfly Festival Set for August 18 at Dunbar Cave State Park
  • TTA Marks 50 Years of Promoting Hiking

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  • Albert F. Ganier, the John James Audubon of Tennessee
  • How to be a Good Conservation Neighbor to State Lands
  • Tour Stonecipher-Kelly House at Frozen Head State Park