Beekeepers report honey bee losses down, but problem remains

May 22, 2014

You can thank a bee for about one of every three bites of food we eat.

Jeff Pettis is the research leader for the Bee Research Lab with the Agricultural Research Service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“Most of the nutritious stuff in our diet is probably pollinated by some kind of animal, and most likely a bee,” he says.

Pettis just wrapped up a survey of beekeepers around the country, and he found they lost just over 23% of their bee colonies this past winter.

“The previous about seven-year average has been just over 30%, so this number is a little bit better, but by no means is it a great number for numbers of colonies lost through the winter. Before we got the parasitic mite varroa, we used to lose 5-10% of the colonies in the winter. We got two parasitic mites in the 80s; the numbers jumped between 15-20% losses," he says.

He says they think the more recent losses are due to a couple of factors.

"Bees are in environments, like on a pollination contract, where they're only getting a single source of pollen. Then, we're seeing issues with pesticide exposure where bees are being stressed."

"There’s some nutritional stress going on out there; bees are in environments, like on a pollination contract, where they’re only getting a single source of pollen. Then, we’re seeing issues with pesticide exposure where bees are being stressed. So it’s likely that these multitude of other factors have piled on to what was already poor bee health, making us have these 30% losses every year," says Pettis.

He says beekeepers are reporting that they're seeing less Colony Collapse Disorder – where adult bees just disappear from the colony.

“We saw it starting in about 2004. We described it in 2006 or 2007, as a unique set of symptoms. We’re seeing less and less of colony collapse disorder over the last three years, but we’re seeing the loss rate still remain about the same. So, whether colony collapse has not totally disappeared, but dropped off, or the symptoms we see are not matching what we’ve called CCD in the past, we don’t know. But it’s certainly not the primary thing beekeepers report as being the reason for colony losses of late. They point to things like queen loss, varroa mites, pesticide exposure, nutritional stress as being more important of late,” he says.

Pettis says if you want to help bees out in your backyard, you can put in native plants that bees like, mow your grass a little higher, and use fewer pesticides.

The Xerces Society also has some advice for the best pollinator-friendly plants for our region. And you can check out the Pollinator Partnership's bee page for more info.