Aug 30, 2015

US Beekeepers Lost 40% Of Bees Last Year Alone


by Josh L Davis
Photo credit: Pakhnushchy/Shutterstock
 
Honey bees are critical not just to the ecosystem, but to our agricultural business. It’s thought that they contribute an estimated $10 billion annually to the economy through pollinating crops. But the plight of the honey bee is in a dire state. Over the past few decades, the number of honey bees has declined by a shocking 60% in the United States alone.

Unfortunately, the preliminary results from a new report of American honey bee survival rates brings more bad news. Beekeepers across the U.S. saw a further loss of over two-fifths (42%) of their honey bee colonies during the past year. What’s more, the greatest loss was—to the surprise of the researchers—over summer. This is in stark contrast to what is normally expected, with the greatest number of losses usually occuring during winter, and could be a worrying new trend.

The study, conducted by the Bee Informed Partnership in collaboration with the Apiary Inspectors of America, surveyed over 6,000 commercial and small-scale beekeepers, asking them about the state of their colonies over the past year. They found that whilst there was a modest increase in survival of colonies over the winter when compared with the year before, the survival rates over the summer took a troubling turn.

“We traditionally thought of winter losses as a more important indicator of health, because surviving the cold winter months is a crucial test for any bee colony,” said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, project director for the Bee Informed Partnership. “But we now know that summer loss rates are significant too. This is especially so for commercial beekeepers, who are now losing more colonies in the summertime compared to the winter. Years ago, this was unheard of.”

The survey results covered an estimated 14% of the country’s managed bee colonies. What they found was a drop in losses over winter compared to last year, but this was negated by a huge increase in losses over summer, growing from 19.8% to 27.4%. Interestingly, the losses for commercial and small-scale beekeepers did not follow the same pattern. Commercial keepers took a greater hit during the summer months, whereas the small-scale keepers saw greater losses over winter.

Whilst the researchers think that the deadly varroa mite (Varroa destructor) is to blame for the colony declines of the small-scale keepers, they are at a loss to explain what is causing the decline of the commercial keepers' colonies. “Commercial keepers were particularly prone to summer losses. But they typically take more aggressive action against varroa mites, so there must be other factors at play,” explained vanEngelsdorp.

This is the ninth year they have surveyed the winter colony survival rates, and the fifth year they've looked at summer survival, but the authors say that these results highlight the importance of continuing to collect these long-term data sets. It also adds to the growing concern surrounding the health decline of honey bee colonies, not just in the United States, but the world over.
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