New WSU pollinator center to address bee health

OTHELLO, Wash. — Two years ago, the Hiatt Honey Co. in Ephrata, Wash., lost roughly 10,000 hives to diseases and pests.

That’s about 53% of its hives, co-owner Chris Hiatt said.

It was the worst loss since 2004, when the company lost 8,000 to 9,000 hives, Hiatt said.

“This past year was only 33%, so that’s great,” Hiatt told the Capital Press. “Isn’t that crazy for me to say only? The national average was 40% last year. Everyone just expects to lose 30 to 40% through the whole year (to) mites, virus, pesticide pressure.”

Hiatt was one of the speakers during the March 6 ribbon cutting of Washington State University’s new Honey Bee and Pollinator research, extension and education facility. It is designed to help protect and improve pollinator health.

The university purchased the Othello, Wash., building, formerly owned by Monsanto and used for research and corn growing operations, for $2.5 million in June 2019.

No bees were yet at the center during the March 6 ceremony. They were in California pollinating almonds and will be moved to Yakima to pollinate cherries this week, said Brandon Hopkins, entomology assistant research professor.

The university has roughly 100 colonies, each with 40,000 bees. The center will eventually run 400 to 500 colonies, Hopkins said.

The new facility will scientifically seek solutions such as mite treatments or virus controls, any of which would be helpful, Hiatt said.

About six top universities for bee research, including WSU, are working to find answers for the hive losses, he said.

“Honeybees are the single most important pollinator contributing to a healthy global food supply,” said Andre-Denis Wright, dean of WSU’s College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences. “Bees are threatened by a host of challenges, and they need our help.”

Honeybees are “key to the existence of agriculture and, I guess you could argue, to the existence of humans on this planet,”  U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., said.

Hiatt said it’s hard to measure how quickly the center’s effects will be felt in the industry.

The facility will allow researchers to collaborate with seed producers and other farmers, Hopkins said.

For example, WSU pollinator ecology professor Steve Sheppard is leading an experiment in which mushroom extracts are being tested as a way to help bees combat viruses.

Hiatt said bringing the extracts to market would be huge.

“It’s urgent, it’s super-urgent,” he said. “Honey price is down, (the price of) pollination is up, but these high losses just make it harder to stay in business.”