Let’s face it, honey bee colony losses in recent years have been scary and devastating, not only to the beekeeping industry, but to the entire agriculture industry. Maintaining a plentiful national food supply requires pollination by bees, so anything that limits or causes significant honey bee losses severely limits the foods available. But recent surveys have found that honey bee losses are down slightly this year, a positive development but one that researchers are cautiously optimistic about.
According to a survey conducted by the Apiary Inspectors of America (AIA) and USDA between September 2008 and early April 2009, honey bee losses nationwide were approximately 29% from all causes. This compares to losses of about 36% from 2007 to 2008 and 32% from 2006 to 2007.
“While the drop in losses is encouraging, the rate of loss is economically unsustainable for commercial beekeeping, as the average operational loss increased from 31% in the 2007/2008 winter season to 34% in the 2008/2009 winter.” says Jeff Pettis, research leader of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, MD. The survey was conducted by Pettis, Dennis van Engelsdorp, president of AIA, and Jerry Hayes, AIA past president.
The survey checked on about 20% of the country’s 2.3 million honey bee colonies.
About 26% of the apiaries surveyed reported that some of their colonies died of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), down from 36% of apiaries reporting CCD as a cause in 2007-2008. CCD is characterized by the complete absence of bees in dead colonies or in apiaries. The cause of CCD is yet unknown.
Because it was an interview-based survey, the researchers were not able to differentiate between verifiable cases of CCD and colonies lost as the result of other cases that share the absence of dead bees as a symptom.
The apiaries that reported some of their colonies died without the presence of dead bees lost an average of 32% of their colonies, while beekeep-ers who reported not losing any bees with symptoms of CCD lost an average of 26% of their colonies.
Of greater concern, only 15% of all colonies lost during the 2008-2009 winter died with symptoms of CCD, compared to a 60% colony loss with CCD-like symptoms in the winter of 2007-2008; however 58% of all beekeepers reported above normal losses last year, losing a total of 33% of their colonies compared to the minority of beekeepers who claimed a normal or below normal loss of 17%.
“While losses from CCD may have decreased last winter, losses from other causes remain a significant concern,” says Pettis. “These findings emphasize the urgent need for research, not only of CCD, but of general honey bee health.”
Preventing More Losses
To strengthen the beekeeping industry, in 2008 ARS began its five-year, Areawide Research Program to Improve Honey Bee Health, Survivorship, and Pollination Availability. Pettis is coordinator of the new program.
“At the end of the five-year cycle, we’ll have specific recommendations that the beekeeper could use on how to manage bees more efficiently during long-range transport for pollination. We want to be able to transfer that technology to be used by the end-user,” says John Adamcyzk, the acting research leader for ARS’s Honey Bee Research Unit in Weslaco, TX, and head of ARS’s Beneficial Insects Research Unit, which is also in Weslaco.
For beekeepers to continue meeting growers’ pollination demands, research must solve problems caused by parasitic mites and other pests, diseases, and CCD. The areawide approach will bring together recent improvements in mite-resistant bee stocks, nutrition, and pest- and disease-management in a comprehensive management strategy.