Ellis said honey bee problems started in 1984 with the appearance of the tracheal mite, an organism that lives in the respiratory system of the honey bees. This was followed by the arrival of the varroa mite, followed by Africanized bees in 1990. In 1998, the small hive beetle was discovered, followed by the Nosema ceranae parasite and the Israeli acute paralysis virus in 2007.

While these things are taking a toll on bees and beekeepers, Ellis said his Extension beekeeping programs had record participation this year.

"It seems people are concerned and see keeping bees as a way to help the problem," he said.

A rapid increase in the acreage of insect-pollinated crops, especially almonds in California, compounds the problem, Ellis said.

The U.S. is the leading producer and exporter of almonds and supplies the vast majority of the world's almonds. Half of the country's bees are used to pollinate almonds, which need two colonies of bees for each acre.

Most of the honey bee colonies that produce honey in Nebraska and other north central states travel to California each winter to meet the demand for pollination.

Nebraskans can take steps to help the bees. When possible, instead of having all grass pastures, lawns, parks and golf courses, incorporate blooming plants.

Bees need resources throughout the season and diverse resources are better than monocultures. Some forbs that are highly attractive to bees include clovers, vetches, alfalfa, sunflowers, various mints and most native prairie wildflower mixes.

Beneficial trees and shrubs include pussy willow, linden, black locust, butterfly bush and Russian sage.

The single most important thing people can do is have a diverse set of resources that bloom throughout the growing season, Ellis said.

"You can have 100 acres of a blooming crop, but once the blooms are gone, bees have to look for something else," he said. "In a natural setting, there is succession of blooming things to benefit pollinating insects."

Finally, it's important that people use insecticides carefully – read and follow all label directions and don't spray during blooming periods. It is illegal to spray most insecticides when plants are in bloom.