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Nicole Miller-Struttmann, a biologist at Webster University and one of the nation’s top bee experts, said a recent survey pointing to a dramatic decline in winter honeybee colonies was “shocking.” She said previous surveys had showed some recovery, “so many were hopeful that we were starting to reverse this trend.”

If you’re like most people, your first experience with a honeybee may have been a painful one as you played barefoot in the backyard as a child.

Just as likely, you’ve outgrown any apprehension of bees and have come to appreciate them and their diligent efforts to provide sustenance for their hive, their queen and, indirectly, us.

But those bees that once seemed to cover nearly every clover bud are far from ubiquitous these days. In fact, wildlife biologists have been tracking their steady decline over the past 10 years. Nicole Miller-Struttmann, a renowned expert on bees and a professor at Webster University, is one of those scientists.

“I remember as a kid driving on vacation with my family and having to clean the dead insects off the windshield whenever we’d stop for gas. It isn’t just bees and butterflies — the pollinators — there is increasing evidence that insects in general are declining in numbers,” said Miller-Struttmann, a Webster Groves native.

Miller-Struttmann holds a doctoral degree in evolution, ecology and population biology from Washington University. She has taught and researched at the University of Missouri, Maryville University and State University of New York College-Old Westbury. Her work has been published in numerous academic journals as well as popular magazines.

This spring, Miller-Struttmann and other academics were dismayed by studies that indicated the number of honeybees that survived the winter dropped precipitously.

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Nicole Miller-Struttmann, a biologist at Webster University, says that more targeted use of pesticides, preservation of habitat and cultivation of plants that are resources for bees are some of the best ways to maintain honeybee populations “until nature provides a solution of its own.” 

An annual nationwide survey by the Bee Informed Partnership reports that 37.7 percent of honeybee colonies died this past winter, nearly nine percentage points higher than the average winter loss.

“It’s been an issue, yet after a few recent years, it looked as if the bee deaths were leveling out. Then we got slammed (in 2019.) It was one of the worst ever,” said Miller-Struttmann.

Industry, agriculture and academia all have a keen interest in the phenomena.

“From the scientific perspective, our job is to try to figure out why it’s happening,” Miller-Struttman said. “There are a lot of theories, but it seems that it isn’t just any one factor. The bee population has a lot of things stacked against it today.”

Miller-Struttmann said it is too simple to assign the decline in pollinators to climate change, which is just one factor. Limited floral resources, limited habitat, high exposure to pesticides and diseases and parasites have worked together to take a toll on bees.

Another fact to consider is that, to the layman’s surprise, honeybees are an invasive species in North America. European settlers in the 17th century crossed the Atlantic Ocean with hives of them, knowing their value as pollinators and honey producers.

“Honeybees are very important as pollinators, but they actually do better with native plants (from Europe).There are other types of bees that are native to the U.S. that do their share in pollinating,” Miller-Struttmann said.

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A bumblebee is also an important pollinator.

Those would be carpenter bees, bumblebees, sweat bees and others, plus wasps, hornets and winged ants, which are also experiencing challenges to their populations.

Concerns about bee decline begs the question of what, if anything, can be done to reverse the trend. The professor says that more targeted use of pesticides, preservation of habitat and cultivation of plants that are resources for bees seem to be the best hope until nature provides a solution of its own.

Not to be a buzz kill, but the efforts of private citizens, clubs and organizations to create and maintain honeybee hives is probably of limited value in stabilizing the overall bee population.

“Some people have their hearts in the right place, but urban beekeeping may not be very effective because, again, honeybees aren’t native,” Miller-Struttmann said.

3rd Annual Bee Blitz A Washout

A few dozen bee enthusiasts gathered at the Forest Park Forever Visitors Center in Forest Park to participate in the 3rd annual St. Louis Bee Blitz, but instead of tiptoeing through the tall grass, they settled for some classroom work.

Intermittent showers canceled the field exercise that is the most conspicuous part of the Blitz, which is organized by the St. Louis Bee Brigade — a collaboration among Webster University, Saint Louis University, BeeSpotter of the University of Illinois, the Academy of Science of St. Louis and Forest Park Forever.

“What we would have been doing is blocking out a two-meter-by-two-meter plot of flowers, and taking pictures of all the bees that show up in that grid in a 10-minute period,” explained Lisa Danback, a Webster University undergraduate and assistant to Miller-Struttmann. “Instead, it’s all going to be in the classroom.”

In the classroom were a mix of biology students and interested citizens, who viewed a presentation on how to observe and photograph bees and how they can support wild bee populations.

“We’ve taken a lot of pictures of bees in the past, so we wanted to come out and see what this is all about and if maybe we can help,” said Don York, a member of the St. Louis Camera Club.

“I’ve noticed in my own backyard in U. City that we used to see swallowtails and monarch butterflies, even flying ants. But I don’t hardly see any insects there anymore. I think it would be great if we could help with our photography skills,” said Kim Mulkey Young, another member of the Camera Club.

“We’re learning how to identify species, photograph them and upload the images so that scientists can track the populations,” said Julia Paradise, a Webster University student.

The blitzes help compile a digital record of pollinator species, times and locations.

“We really want to beef it up a bit and take a longer-term look through the summer, so we will be having Blitzes in July, August and September instead of just one,” Danback said.

Those interested in participating in the Blitz programs are invited to email Nicole Miller-Struttmann at nicolem42@webster.edu.