Examining the role of shelterbelts (tree plantings) on early-season honey production and hive growth of honeybees in the North Central Region (NCR).

Progress report for LNC19-420

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2019: $199,922.00
Projected End Date: 12/01/2023
Grant Recipient: North Dakota State University
Region: North Central
State: North Dakota
Project Coordinator:
Benjamin Geaumont
North Dakota State University
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Project Information


Examining the role of shelterbelts (tree plantings) on early-season honey production and hive growth of honeybees in the North Central Region (NCR). Pollinators, particularly managed honey bees (Apis mellifera), are critical to food production and sustainable agriculture. Annually, $215 billion of global food production is dependent upon honey bee pollination services, indicating the importance of these organisms to global food security.  More specifically, honey production is an important revenue source in many communities across the NCR. Despite this economic and ecological importance, honey bees are under threat from many sources including intensified agricultural practices and continued loss of perennial vegetation. As these threats persist, reductions in the temporal availability of food resources, especially in the early growing season, may be reducing honey bee survivorship and limiting honey production.

Our preliminary observations and communications with beekeepers suggest shelterbelts could provide a crucial food source for bees when other resources are scarce. However, research has not evaluated shelterbelts for pollinator use, particularly in the resource-limited early growing season. We will examine the effect of shelterbelts on early-season honey production and bee hive health in North and South Dakota, the top two honey producing states in the United States.

To address this, we will establish honey bee colonies across a gradient of landscapes that vary in the amount of shelterbelts they contain. Our design will simultaneously contrast pollen collection and hive weights (i.e., a proxy for hive growth or health) across these landscapes. We expect to learn how shelterbelts can benefit bees, which could change both shelterbelt and bee management. Additionally, we will identify trees and shrubs that provide food resources for bees. This will help guide United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Soil Conservation Districts (SCDs) across the NCR with future shelterbelt plantings that can have multiple ecological and economic benefits. Identifying and encouraging bee-friendly shelterbelts will 1) help create healthy honey bee populations during the early-season, which will 2) produce more of a commodity (honey) for beekeepers and 3) benefit farmers/ranchers by enhancing the pollinator resources (and services) crucial to the overall success and sustainability of their respective industries. Finally, society in general will benefit from this research as many of the honey bees that spend the summer in the region are a vital source of pollinator services for fruits, nuts and vegetables throughout the United States.

Project Objectives:


  • Private landowners interested in pollinators or shelterbelts
  • Beekeepers
  • Soil Conservation Districts
  • United States Department of Agriculture (Farm Service Agency, Natural Resource Conservation Service) 
  • Students
  • Ag. Educators
  • Scientist

Learning outcomes:

  • Understand how shelterbelt abundance (Objective 1) and composition (Objective 2) boosts honey production and honey bee colony growth
  • Increase awareness about pollinators, their ecology, and how shelterbelt management can improve their health (Objective 3)

Action outcomes:

  • Beekeepers will select more productive early-season landscapes and produce a larger honey crop
  • SCDs will promote cost-effective flowering trees and shrubs in shelterbelts that benefit pollinators
  • Landowners will benefit from greater crop and forage pollination because of future pollinator-friendly shelterbelts

Globally, native and managed pollinators are experiencing broad-scale population declines, causing a reduction in available pollination services (Council et al., 2007; Potts et al., 2010). Pollinators, however, are extremely important for humans both economically and for global food security (Gallai et al., 2009; Klein et al., 2006; Potts et al., 2010).

Since the mid-1900s the U.S. Department of Agriculture has tracked and documented an overall decline in managed European honeybee (Apis mellifera) colonies (Council et al., 2007). Similar to declines in other pollinators, factors including parasites, pests, and pathogens interact, weakening populations (Council et al., 2007; Potts et al., 2010). As the primary commercial pollinator in North America and the most widely used and managed pollinator in the world, declines prohibit the European honeybee population from keeping up with the demand for their pollination services (Aizen & Harder, 2009; Delaplane and Mayer, 2000; Kearns et al., 1998; McGregor, 1976).

In the U.S. annually, honeybee pollination is estimated to be valued between $1.5-18.9 billion (Council et al., 2007). In 2019 alone, 157 million pounds of honey were produced with a honey production value of over $309 million ("U.S. Honey Industry Report - 2019," 2020).

In addition to their importance throughout the US, honeybees are an important species for the Northern Great Plains (NGP) region. After a mass transport of honeybee colonies back to the region in early spring, the Northern Great Plains region hosts about one million honeybee colonies, leading the country in honey production and making honeybee declines particularly concerning (Otto et al., 2016; "U.S. Honey Industry Report - 2019," 2020).

Increasingly, land-use change reduces forage availability for honeybees throughout the year and influences their survivorship (Smart et al., 2016). These changes limit forage and nutrient diversity necessary for honeybee survival, and colony growth (Smart et al., 2016).

One potential solution to lessen future declines in honeybees is to promote forage diversity specifically at times when it is lacking (Decourtye et al., 2010; Dolezal et al., 2019). Early spring floral resources are often limited in grasslands, however, and flowering trees and shrubs could fill this niche and provide crucial resources in a time of need for declining honeybee populations.

Around the world, trees and shrubs have been highly documented as important honeybee resources especially during spring (Brodschneider et al., 2019; Lau et al., 2019; Sponsler et al., 2020). Tree and shrub plantings in the NGP are commonly known as shelterbelts, and were originally planted to provide soil stability and windbreaks, although they provide numerous services for human use (Gardner, 2009; Johnson & Beck, 1988).

The goal of our study is to determine if early flowering trees and shrubs planted in the NGP provide essential resources to fill early-season forage gaps for honeybees.


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Apiaries with a greater area of shelterbelts within a 1-mile radius will experience greater colony weight gains relative to colonies belonging to apiaries located in areas with less cover of shelterbelts.

Honeybees will use trees and shrubs associated with shelterbelts as pollen sources to a greater extent early in the growing season relative to other forbs on the landscape.

Materials and methods:
Apiary in SW North Dakota
Apiary in SW North Dakota

We conducted research in Central North Dakota near the Central Grasslands Research Extension Center in 2020 and western North Dakota near the Hettinger Research Extension Center in 2020-2022. Research was done on private lands using commercially owned colonies. Research was done in Adams, Grant, Stutsman and Kidder Counties in North Dakota and in Perkins County, South Dakota. Bees owned and managed by Browning Honey Company (Central ND) and T2 Honey Company (Western ND) began arriving in North Dakota around mid-May.  

Prior to honeybee arrival, we uploaded potential apiary locations into ArcGIS and overlaid points on a North Dakota Forest Service tree cover layer. We used these data to determine the proportion of trees cover that occurred within a 1-mile radius of each apiary. We than selected apiaries (research sites) at central and western locations that covered a range of tree cover in proximity to apiaries.

To assess the growth of our bee colonies, we fit two colonies per location (apiary) with digital scales. Scale data will be used to determine how colony growth and honey production varies across our shelterbelt gradient. Colony weights are automatically recorded and saved every 60 minutes throughout the duration of our study. Two additional colonies per location were fitted with pollen traps that collect pollen from bees as they returned from foraging. Colonies within apiaries used for research were checked prior to the onset of research to ensure a healthy queen was present. Pollen traps were opened every five days for two consecutive days from mid-May to mid-July while most trees and shrubs were flowering. From mid-July through September, pollen traps were opened at two-week intervals for three-day periods. We labeled collected pollen and froze for future preparation. To prepare pollen samples, we cleaned, dried, and ground 10 g of each sample into a homogenized powder. Following pollen processing, samples are sent to the USGS lab for floral species identification We will use honey bee collected pollen that is captured by the traps to identify and quantify which plant species bees are using across landscapes throughout the season.

Scales and pollen traps beneath honeybee colonies in SW North Dakota

Vegetation Surveys

We further classified tree rows (clusters of more than 2 individual plants of typically one tree or shrub species) that fell within a one-mile radius of each apiary. Mapping included species types, individual counts, and geographic locations. Following site classification, we conducted weekly drive-by surveys throughout the season at each site. During weekly surveys, we categorized tree and shrub rows by average floral resource percent flowering categories. We compiled these data to document species phenology by region and to record nearby tree and shrub composition.

Research results and discussion:

We monitored colonies at 17 apiaries in western North Dakota in 2022 for a project total of  268 honey bee colonies at 68 apiary sites over three years (24 sites in 2020, 27 sites in 2021, and 17 sites in 2022).

Hive Scales

We assessed changes in colony weights using hourly scale data for all colonies across all years . We began by subtracting the appropriate weights for days when the bees were fed or precipitation resulted in a dramatic increase in hive weights due to absorption. We also accounted for days when supers were added and subtracted. These subtractions allowed us to more closely monitor honey bee colony growth and honey production across sites and colonies. Using three years of weight data, preliminary results suggest that trends in seasonal hive weights varied between years (Figure 1). On average, colonies lost weight the first weeks they were monitored and gained weight the last few weeks. Overall, colonies gained more weight during 2020, with colonies gaining less weight in 2021 and 2022 field seasons. When hive weights were compared with tree cover surrounding sites, we did not find a significant difference in hive weights based on area of tree cover within 1.6 km buffer distances from sites (Figure 2).


Figure 1
Figure 1. Changes in honey bee colony weights in North Dakota;2020-2022.
Figure 2
Figure 2. Cumulative hive weights for colonies monitored during 2020-2022 based on the area of tree cover surrounding sites.

Pollen Collection

We processed pollen samples from the previous year (2021) and sent them to a lab for taxon identification. We received pollen identification results from samples collected in 2020 (Central region) and 2021 (Western region). Honey bees collected pollen from a variety of plant families during both 2020 and 2021 (Figure 3). Early season pollen collected by bees in 2020 in the Central region included 18 plant families across the sample period. Honey bees collected high concentrations of pollen from Asteraceae, Brassicaceae, Fabaceae, and Salicaceae families. Moderate to high pollen quantities were collected from Oleaceae, Ranunculaceae, and Rosaceae families. Cannabaceae, Caprifoliaceae, Elaeagnaceae, Oleaceae, Rhamnaceae, Rosaceae, Salicaceae, and Sapindaceae families have shelterbelt species and were found in 2020 pollen from the Central region. Pollen collected in 2020 in the Western region included 20 families. High concentrations of Asteraceae, Brassicaceae, Fabaceae, and Oleaceae families were found across pollen samples. Rosaceae and Salicaceae families were found in moderate to high concentrations. Honey bees collected pollen from Caprifoliaceae, Elaeagnaceae, Oleaceae, Pinaceae, Rhamnaceae, Rosaceae, Salicaceae, and Sapindaceae shelterbelt families at Western sites in 2020. The 2021 pollen from the Western region included 18 plant families. Honey bees collected high concentrations of pollen from Asteraceae, Brassicaceae, Fabaceae, Oleaceae, and Poaceae families and moderate concentrations of Rosaceae pollen. Pollen from shelterbelts came from Caprifoliaceae, Elaeagnaceae, Oleaceae, Pinaceae, Rhamnaceae, Rosaceae, Salicaceae, and Sapindaceae families.

Figure 3
Figure 3. Plant families identified weekly in 2020 and 2021 honey bee-collected pollen from apiary sites in two regions (Central and Western) of North and South Dakota. Boxes with darker fill symbolize greater pollen collected from that family during a single week.
Participation Summary
31 Farmers participating in research


Educational approach:

We hired Hailey Keen as the graduate student responsible for this project. We have been learning all about the honeybee industry as a team, through hands-on experience. In addition to Hailey and the rest of the team, we also hired a summer technician who worked closely with the team during research activities. 

Hailey continues to lead the way on data collection and analyses. We hired one technician in 2022 that worked closely with Hailey and the staff at the Hettinger Research Extension Center while collecting data and working with bees. Jacob Yetter, a graduate student assigned to another project also assisted with colony related data collection. We continue to meet as a research team several times a year to discuss the data, ideas, and future projects. Hailey meets weekly with us to discuss data, tasks and findings. As our data bank regarding the project begins to grow, we have begun speaking with beekeepers, farmers, ranchers, students and other landowners about our findings through presentations, handouts and short YouTube videos. 

Project Activities

The importance of honeybees to the region.
Honey bee use of shelterbelts in the great plains.
Honey bee use of shelterbelt plantings in two regions of North Dakota: Project Updates
Using pollinator gardens to educate students
Honey Bee Collected Pollen

Educational & Outreach Activities

10 Consultations
2 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Published press articles, newsletters
12 Webinars / talks / presentations
5 Workshop field days
2 Other educational activities: I went to the local elementary school in 2021 and 2022 to discuss honeybees and the beekeeping industry with first graders. I went dressed in a bee suit, it was very interactive.

Participation Summary:

75 Farmers participated
100 Ag professionals participated
Education/outreach description:

We provided a synopsis of the project to be published in the ND Department of Agriculture for their Apiary Newsletter. 

In 2021, we began to more actively engage the public and colleagues regarding our research. We provided an introduction/update of our project by presenting preliminary findings at the Society for Range Management in February 2021 , presenting to the advisory board in summer 2021, , and outlined the project at a wildlife workshop at the Hettinger REC in October of 2021. As previously mentioned, we visited with student in a first grade class about honeybees and beekeeping, focusing on their biology and needs from the environment. 

We worked with NDSU extension to create a short youtube video that outlines the project and can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jOWaQ-DChLA

We presented our preliminary findings to the ND Association of Soil Conservation Districts and the ND Bee Keepers Association in 2022. The information was well received and we had many comments and conversations based on the data. We also had the opportunity to present at the North Dakota State University Fall Conference for Extension and Research Extension Center. This crowed primarily consisted of Ag. Educators. Perhaps the highlight of outreach for the year is when we teamed with Adams County Extension, Pheasants Forever and the Hettinger Elementary School to establish a pollinator garden at our local lake near the walking path. Along with planting the garden, we also talked all things pollinators including a good discussion on honey bees. A few of the student even opted to climb in the bee suit! 

 A few of the presentations from 2022 have been attached above.


Learning Outcomes

36 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
25 Agricultural service providers reported changes in knowledge, skills, and/or attitudes as a result of their participation
Key areas taught:
  • Honey bee biology and habitat use
  • Importance of flowering resources for pollinators
  • Importance of the honey bee industry to our state
  • Tasks of a bee keeper
  • Shelterbelts species used for pollen by honey bees

Project Outcomes

Key practices changed:
    3 Grants applied for that built upon this project
    5 New working collaborations

    Information Products

      Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.