In a recently published annual survey, beekeepers in the United States were found to have lost nearly half of their managed honeybee colonies, marking the second-highest death rate on record.

The survey, conducted by the University of Maryland and Auburn University, revealed that 48% of colonies were lost in the year ending April.

Despite this significant loss, the total number of honeybee colonies in the country remained relatively stable, thanks to the costly and Herculean efforts of beekeepers.

Alarming Loss: Beekeepers Witness Second Highest Death Rate for Honeybee Colonies

The crucial role of honeybees in our food supply cannot be overstated.

These industrious pollinators play a vital role in the growth of over 100 crops, including nuts, vegetables, berries, citrus fruits, and melons.

The survey attributed the ongoing large-scale die-offs to a combination of factors, including parasites, pesticides, starvation, and climate change.

Vital Pollinators: Honeybees’ Crucial Role in Food Supply Under Threat

Comparing the figures to previous years, last year’s 48% loss surpassed the previous year’s rate of 39% and the 12-year average of 39.6%. However, it fell just short of the alarming mortality rate of 50.8% witnessed in 2020-2021.

Beekeepers participating in the survey expressed that a 21% loss over the winter was deemed acceptable, but more than three-fifths of them reported losses exceeding that threshold.

Escalating Losses: Annual Survey Shows Increase from Previous Year’s Figures

Jeff Pettis, former government bee scientist and president of the global beekeeper association Api Mondia, which was not involved in the study, expressed concern over the troubling loss rate, particularly considering the already delicate balance between colony numbers and pollination demands in the U.S.

He emphasized the arduous task that beekeepers face each year in rebuilding their colonies.

Challenging Balance: Beekeepers Struggle to Meet Pollination Demands Amid Losses

Despite the high losses, the overall honeybee colony population has managed to remain relatively steady due to the efforts of commercial beekeepers, who split and restock their hives by acquiring new queens or even starter packs for colonies.

Nevertheless, this process is both expensive and time-consuming.

Resilience and Rebuilding: Commercial Beekeepers’ Efforts Help Maintain Colony Population

According to Nathalie Steinhauer, the lead author of the survey and a bee researcher at the University of Maryland, the prognosis is not as dire as it was 15 years ago.

Beekeepers have learned how to recover from significant losses, contributing to the current stability.

Jay Evans, a research entomologist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, who was not involved in the survey, acknowledged the persistent threats posed by the environment but expressed confidence in the resilience of honeybees, stating that while challenges persist, extinction is unlikely.

Optimistic Outlook: Lessons Learned from the Past Aid in Honeybee Recovery

The survey highlighted the vast variation in colony losses experienced by different beekeepers.

Some commercial beekeepers, who had previously achieved success, reported losses as high as 80% this past year, while others managed to fare better.

The primary culprit behind these losses is the parasitic mite Varroa destructor, which not only weakens bees but also facilitates the transmission of viruses.

Climate-related factors and queen issues also contributed to the challenges faced by beekeepers in the past year.

Pesticides exacerbated the situation by making bees more susceptible to diseases and reducing their foraging behavior.

Varroa Mites and More: Culprits Behind Bee Colony Losses Revealed

Steinhauer compared the impact of varroa mites on bees to “death by a thousand cuts,” underscoring the severity of the issue.

Previously, large infestations of varroa, around 60% of a colony, were required to cause virus-related problems. However, even small infestations of 1% or 2% can now result in devastating consequences.

Battling the Odds: Beekeepers Face Varied Losses and Complex Challenges

Landscapes dominated by a single crop and the use of pesticides, combined with extreme weather events, further compound the challenges faced by honeybees.

For instance, in the Washington, D.C. area, unseasonably warm temperatures in January disrupted bees’ normal winter routines, leading to subsequent difficulties when temperatures dropped again.

Climate Change and its Impact: A Threat to Bee Colony Survival

Climate change also poses a significant threat to bee colony survival, as highlighted by Jeff Pettis.

The subtle impacts of climate change on bees can often go undetected, further exacerbating the challenges faced by beekeepers and their vital pollinators.

Beekeepers and the Demand for Pollination: Striving to Meet Growing Needs

While the demand for pollination from commercial bee colonies continues to grow, beekeepers must work harder to compensate for their losses.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture states that 35% of the human diet is derived from insect-pollinated plants, with honeybees accounting for 80% of that pollination.

Urgent Pressure: Striving to Sustain Beekeepers and Bee Colonies

Nathalie Steinhauer stressed the significance of honeybee colonies in supporting the agricultural industry, emphasizing the immense pressure placed on commercial beekeepers to fulfill pollination contracts.

This ongoing pressure poses a significant strain on both beekeepers and the bees they care for, underscoring the urgent need for sustainable solutions to protect and support honeybee populations.

Battling the Evolving Challenges: Collaborative Efforts for Honeybee Preservation

The battle against the evolving challenges faced by honeybees continues, requiring concerted efforts from scientists, beekeepers, and policymakers alike to ensure the preservation of these essential pollinators and the crucial ecosystem services they provide.