Commercial honeybee colonies have had a rough run. And it's not over yet. The annual loss rate for honeybees during the year ending in April rose to 40.7 percent, up slightly over the annual average of 38.7 percent, according to the Bee Informed Partnership, a nonprofit group associated with the University of Maryland.
More troubling was this past winter's losses of 37.7 percent. Winter bees tend to live longer, clustering in the hive to keep the queen warm. This winter's losses were 8.9 percentage points higher than the survey average and the highest winter loss since the annual bee survey began 13 years ago.
Karen Rennich, the partnership's executive director, said the nonprofit has been collecting loss data from beekeepers and conducting a longer survey of management data since 2010. "We're trying to drill down and see which management practices are correlated with lower mortality," she said.
Rennich points to the three months of California wildfires, with bees affected by smoke and by the lack of plants on which to forage. She also cited the wet winter in the Midwest and the spring's slow planting schedule. But drought, fires, hurricanes and the Midwest's "bomb cyclone" are just the start of bee woes.
The honeybee crisis of the past decade is often blamed on increased use of fungicides, herbicides such as Monsanto's Roundup and pesticides called neonicotinoids. In addition to colony collapse disorder, in recent years bees have suffered from viruses carried by varroa mites, as well as problems with queen vigor, weakened immune systems and poor nutrition. Longtime beekeepers such as David Hackenberg say the bee life span has fallen to just 25 to 30 days. It used to be more than twice that.
When people think of bees, they think of honey. But since the early 1990s, many beekeepers have made the majority of their money renting out their hives to farmers to pollinate crops such as apples, cranberries, melons and squash. (Row crops such as corn, wheat and soybeans are wind-pollinated or self-pollinating.)
Hackenberg winters his bees in Trilby, Florida, then he starts his year by pollinating California almonds. (It takes nearly 2 million hives to pollinate California's almond crop alone, with nearly half the country's hired-gun pollinator bees trucked in from all over.) After that he heads to Georgia to pollinate peaches, then to Pennsylvania, then to Maine for blueberries and New York for clover honey, before finishing up by pollinating pumpkins back in Pennsylvania. He trucks his bees 80,000 to 100,000 miles each year, moving them up to 22 times.
Hackenberg coined the term "colony collapse disorder" in 2006.
"In 2017 we had 1,671 hives and our losses for the year were 1,458 hives. Last year we had 1,832 hives and lost 2,093 hives," Hackenberg said this week by phone. And while losing more than 100 percent seems like a mathematical impossibility, he explained: "All we're doing is making replacement bees to make up for our losses. I've been talking to the big guys across the country who had 20,000 hives and they didn't have 1,000 hives to go to [California's] almonds. It's not nice to say, but the almond farmers were renting a lot of empty boxes."
Our tax dollars have subsidized beekeepers' losses. The 2014 farm bill earmarked $20 million for the Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honey Bees, and Farm-Raised Fish Program, known as ELAP, to compensate for losses of livestock, honeybees and farmed fish. That number was bumped up to $34 million last April to deal with the year's large number of natural disasters.
"When they established ELAP numbers in 2007 or 2008, they paid out for anything over 17 percent losses, which was fairly normal in the early 2000s," Hackenberg recalled. "We might have gotten paid 60 cents on the dollar. A year ago, they changed it because they were paying out so much money - they jumped it from 17 to 23 percent losses. Beekeepers are living off our equity."
Hackenberg is convinced that pesticide, herbicide and fungicide use is the culprit - and there is a lot more fungicide sprayed in a really wet spring - while Rennich said there may be other contributing factors, such as "monocropping," the growing of a single crop on the same plot year after year, which reduces forage for bees, and the movement of hired-pollinator bees risking the spread of disease.
Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a professor of entomology at the University of Maryland and chief scientist for the Bee Informed Partnership, said that while extreme weather has worsened honeybees' plight, the biggest threat is varroa mites. It has been hard to develop a chemical compound that will kill the mites without killing the bees.
"There have been products that work, some at 95 percent," he said. "But varroa mites are increasingly resistant, and we're trying to understand that a little better. They are acting differently than they have in the past."
Management practices can extend the health and life of bees, but vanEngelsdorp said vigilance is essential.
"That's the message we're trying to get across," he said. "People can get their mite population down to zero, and then they stop monitoring. This requires constant monitoring."
Jim Doan's bees winter in Florida and spend the rest of the year in New York. Last year he moved his 1,200 hives to the western part of New York's Allegany County, an area he says is away from high-intensity agriculture.
"This is dairy country, and dairy has taken a downward spiral," Doan said by phone. "And because we've seen a lot of rain, nobody has gotten their corn or soy in the ground, so nobody has sprayed. I think it's about getting bees to a pesticide-free environment."
"This past year, [bee] mortality was around 70 percent, which is about average for where we've been," he said. "It's not where I'd like to see it, but it's better than where it's been."