Nearly 1 in 4 U.S. honeybee colonies died this winter — a loss that's not quite as bad as recent years, says a new U.S. Department of Agriculture survey of beekeepers. Yet dangers remain for the pollinators.
Under siege from parasites, disease, pesticide use, nutrition problems and a mysterious die-off, 23 percent of bee colonies failed, and experts say that's considerably better than in the previous year, which was particularly bad, and in the preceding eight years, which averaged losses of 30 percent.
"It's better news than it could have been," said Dennis van Engelsdorp, a University of Maryland entomology professor who led the survey. "It's not good news."
Before a parasitic mite — just one of a handful of problems besetting the crucial-for-pollination honeybees — started killing bees in 1987, beekeepers would be embarrassed if they lost more than 5 or 10 percent of their colonies over the winter. Now they see a 23 percent loss as a bit of a break, said survey co-author Jeff Pettis, the USDA's bee research chief.
"It's encouraging that, if anything, it's not a steady downward trend," said University of Illinois entomology professor May Berenbaum, who wasn't part of the survey of 7,200 beekeepers.
David Mendes, a beekeeper in North Fort Myers, Florida, and a past president of the American Beekeeping Federation, says the official numbers likely underestimate the loss. About 30 percent of his bees died, he said. And earlier this year there was a massive die-off in the California almond fields, where "probably 100,000 hives got nailed," he added.
The experts aren't certain why this year wasn't as bad as previous years. Maybe the winter of 2012 through '13 was so bad that beekeepers had to try harder to keep bees alive and baby their hives more, Pettis said.
There's no one reason for the losses, he and others said. Several years ago they were surprised by a die-off, called colony collapse disorder, but that has gone away the past few years, they said.
Pettis and van Engelsdorp said now the problem seems to be a combination of parasitic varroa mites, a relatively new class of pesticides and poor nutrition because there's a lack of diversity in crops where they get their pollen.
Honeybees pollinate more than 90 of the world's flowering crops, including apples, nuts, broccoli, squash, citrus fruit, berries and melons.
It's getting to the point where many beekeepers can't keep afloat, van Engelsdorp, Pettis and Mendes said.
"It's a really wild ride," Mendes said. "It's not a whole lot of fun."
The Associated Press