While an annual pollinator survey of beekeepers, released yesterday, shows fewer U.S. colony losses over the winter of 2013-2014 than in recent years, beekeepers say losses remain higher than a sustainable level. According to the survey, conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the University of Maryland Bee Informed Partnership, the total loss (death) of managed honey bee colonies from all causes was 23.2 percent nationwide, well above the 18.9 percent level of loss that beekeepers accept as economically sustainable. Nevertheless, the losses were an improvement over the national 30.5 percent loss, and the California 28.6 percent loss, both for the winter of 2012-2013, and over the eight-year average loss of 29.6 percent.
More than three-fourths of the world’s flowering plants rely on pollinators, such as bees, to reproduce, meaning pollinators help produce one out of every three bites of food Americans eat.
“Pollinators, such as bees, birds and other insects are essential partners for farmers and ranchers and help produce much of our food supply. Healthy pollinator populations are critical to the continued economic well-being of agricultural producers,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “While we’re glad to see improvement this year, losses are still too high and there is still much more work to be done to stabilize bee populations.”
“Honeybees pollinate more than 130 California crops, including almonds, California’s largest agricultural export. More than 780,000 acres of almonds grow in California, and for pollination, they need an estimated 1.6 million hives, more than 60 percent of the nation’s total,” according to Debbie Arrington, Sacramento Bee.
There is no way to tell why the bees did better this year, according to both Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a University of Maryland assistant professor and director of the Bee Informed Partnership, and Jeff Pettis, research leader of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Bee Research Laboratory.
Although the pollinator survey shows improvement, losses remain above the level that beekeepers consider to be economically sustainable. This year, almost two-thirds of the beekeepers responding reported losses greater than the 18.9 percent threshold.
“Yearly fluctuations in the rate of losses like these only demonstrate how complicated the whole issue of honey bee heath has become, with factors such as viruses and other pathogens, parasites like varroa mites, problems of nutrition from lack of diversity in pollen sources, and even sublethal effects of pesticides combining to weaken and kill bee colonies,” said Jeff Pettis.
The winter losses survey covers the period from October 2013 through April 2014. About 7,200 beekeepers responded to the voluntary survey.
A complete analysis of the bee survey data will be published later this year. The summary of the analysis is at http://beeinformed.org/results-categories/winter-loss-2013-2014/.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) also announced a summit in Washington D.C. on October 20-21, 2014 aimed at addressing the nutrition and forage needs of pollinators. Attendees will discuss the most recent research related to pollinator loss and work to identify solutions.
Additionally, in March of 2014, Secretary Vilsack created a Pollinator Working Group, under the leadership of Deputy Secretary Krysta Harden, to better coordinate efforts, leverage resources, and increase focus on pollinator issues across USDA agencies.
USDA personnel from ten Department agencies (Agricultural Research Service, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Farm Services Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Economic Research Service, Forest Service, Agricultural Marketing Service, Risk Management Agency and Rural Development) meet regularly to coordinate and evaluate efforts as USDA strives toward improving pollinator health and ensuring our pollinators continuing contributions to our nation’s environment and food security.
Photo credit: UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology