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) 

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.



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 and western North Dakota near the Hettinger Research Extension Center in 2020. Bees owned and managed by T2 Honey company began arriving in western North Dakota around mid-May. Bees owned and operated by Browning Honey Company arrived in the central part of the state about 10 days later. 

In 2021, we continued our investigation of honey bee use of shelterbelt tree and shrub plantings with our second of three total field seasons. During the 2021 field season, we expanded the study region into Grant County, ND and Perkins County, SD, and added to the cumulative number of research sites. We re-used various western North Dakota sites from the previous field season (with different honey bee colonies), while also adding sites in western North Dakota. We did not use any sites in central ND in 2021. 

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 15 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 intend to use pollen collected by the pollen 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 drive-bys, 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:

During the 2020 field season (May-September), we monitored 96 colonies at a total of 24 unique sites (apiaries) within North Dakota. There were 15 sites in western ND and 9 sites in central ND. Across years (2020-2021), we have monitored a total of 204 colonies (24 sites in 2020 and 27 sites in 2021 with 4 colonies per site) in 5 counties (Adams, Grant, Kidder, Stutsman counties, ND and Perkins county, SD). Data collection in 2021 commenced in mid-May following beekeeper returns to the region. 

Hive Scales

Our two colonies at each site sometime differed in their hive weights throughout the season (Figure 1). End weights varied between hives, with six sites ending with less weight than they began and five hives with end weights over 200 lbs greater than their starting weights. We are currently working with the scale data to isolate time periods when trees and shrubs were flowering at each location. We plan to assess the impact of tree cover on honeybee production at various distances from apiaries out to 1 mile. Preliminary analyses suggests there may be a relationship between colony weight gain and the area of tree cover within 250 m of apiaries (Figure 2).

We collected hive weights at 54 colonies in 2021. The data is currently being trimmed for analyses.

Pollen Collection

Pollen samples from the western apiaries have been shipped to the lab for identification and the pollen from the central apiaries are in the processing stage and will be analyzed and compared to vegetation surveys in the future.

Figure 1. Hive weights at four sites (eight colonies) throughout the 2020 field season.
Figure 2. Average Daily Hive weight change by tree cover 250 m from sites.

We collected pollen at 54 colonies in 2021. We are currently preparing pollen to be shipped to a lab for identification. Results from pollen collected in 2020 showed honey bees returning pollen to the colonies belonging to 17 families of flowering plants. The greatest concentration of honey bee-collected pollen was from Asteraceae, Brassicaceae, and Fabaceae families. Additionally, 7 of the total 17 families were from families that included tree and shrub species (Caprifoliaceae, Fabaceae, Oleaceae, Pinaceae, Rhamnaceae, Rosaceae, and Sapindaceae). Common lilac (Syringa vugaris), honeysuckles (Lonicera spp.), and pines (Pinus spp.) were the most well used shelterbelt taxon in early-season pollen samples from the region. Comparisons between flowering shelterbelt species availability and used shelterbelt species show that honey bees do not use all available tree and shrub species. In particular, honey bees did not collect pollen from Cupressaceae, Elaeagnaceae, Grossulariaceae, Salicaceae, or Ulmaceae families based on 2020 pollen.

Figure 3. Plant families that honey bees collected throughout the early-season in southwest North Dakota; 2020.

Researchers working honeybees


Participation Summary
27 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 two technicians in 2021 that worked closely with Hailey and the staff at the Hettinger Research Extension Center while collecting data and working with bees. 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 and other landowners about our findings through presentations and short YouTube videos.

Project Activities

The importance of honeybees to the region.

Educational & Outreach Activities

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

Participation Summary:

24 Farmers participated
25 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 will be presenting our data at the North Dakota Association of Soil Conservation Districts later this spring. This is important because these are the professionals responsible for designing the majority of shelterbelts in North Dakota.

Keen, H., B. Geaumont, T. Hovick, C. Otto, and J. Harmon. 2021. Considering Pollinators When Planting Shelterbelts-Honey Bee Use of Shelterbelts in the Dakotas. Oral presentation, Working Lands & Wildlife Workshop, Hettinger, North Dakota.

Keen, H., B. Geaumont, T. Hovick, C. Otto, and J. Harmon. 2021. Honey Bee Use of Shelterbelts: A Preliminary Analysis. Oral presentation, Hettinger Research Extension Center Advisory Board Meeting, Hettinger, North Dakota.

Keen, H., B. Geaumont, T. Hovick, C. Otto, and J. Harmon. 2021. Honey Bee Colony Growth and Shelterbelt Use in the Northern Great Plains. Oral presentation, Society for Range Management Annual Meeting, virtual.


Learning Outcomes

6 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
5 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

Project Outcomes

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