Forget the plight of the polar bear for a moment and consider the coming collapse of the $30 billion honey bee economy in the US.
Since 2006 honey bees responsible for pollinating more than 100 crops—from apples to zucchini—have been dying by the tens of millions. As a new report from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) details, scientists are still struggling to pinpoint the cause of so-called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and time is running out.
“Currently, the survivorship of honey bee colonies is too low for us to be confident in our ability to meet the pollination demands of U.S. agricultural crops,” the report states.
Some signs of beemageddon: CCD has wiped out some 10 million bee hives worth $2 billion over the past six years. The death rate for colonies has hit 30% annually in recent years and there are now about 2.5 million honey bee colonies in the US, down from 6 million in 1947 and 3 million in 1990. That downward spiral leaves “virtually no cushion of bees for pollination,” the report’s authors write.
If that sounds scary, it is. Take almonds. California harvests more than 80% of the world’s almonds. But you can’t grow the nut without honey bees and it takes 60% of the US’s remaining colonies just to pollinate that one $4 billion cash crop.
If the death toll continues at the present rate, that means there will soon be barely enough bees to pollinate almonds, let alone avocadoes, blueberries, pears or plums. “We are one poor weather event or high winter bee loss away from a pollination disaster,” USDA scientist Jeff Pettis said in the report.
In recent years, agricultural pesticides have become a leading suspect in bee deaths. Attention has focused on a class of chemicals called neonicotinoids. Last month the European Commission imposed a two-year ban on neonicotinoids as global concern grows over the bee population crash, which has affected several European countries too.
But scientists increasingly believe several interacting factors—from disease-carrying parasites to poor nutrition to pesticides—are responsible for the mass die-off. For instance, the report says, studies have shown that exposure to even non-fatal levels of neonicotinoids may make bees more susceptible to disease.
And as agriculture becomes ever more industrial and natural habitats that formerly bordered farmland are destroyed, bees are being starved of the food they need to help produce food for humans. “Undernourished or malnourished bees appear to be more susceptible to pathogens, parasites, and other stressors, including toxins,” said the report.
So how to save the bees? One answer: Breed better bees. The report recommends stepping up efforts to identify genetic traits in particular bees that make them resistance to suspected causes of CCD. Some honey bees, it turns out, take “suicidal risks” when infected with disease to prevent spreading the contagion to the colony.
The report also suggests importing Russian honey bees and other “Old World” bees to diversify bee breeding stock and build up CCD resistance. Scientists already have begun to stockpile bee semen and germplasm in case the worst comes to pass.
Temperatures cooled from the previous week’s record highs, but still averaged a few degrees above normal. Las Vegas had a high of 99 degrees and Ely had a low of 14 degrees. The West and the South had weather permitting forage and crop growth, but the North and East remained too cold. Light rains fell across the middle of the State amidst breezy conditions. Reno was the only station recording measurable precipitation and that was only .01 inch. Mountain snow packs continued to recede and some streams and ponds were drying up.
Field Crops Summary
Days suitable for fieldwork: 7. Spring grain planting continued and irrigation was underway on crops in the West and South. Onion seeding continued and corn planting was beginning in warmer regions. The outlook for irrigation water supplies, particularly surface supplies, was dour. Lovelock Valleys are expecting only a small fraction of normal water allotments and the Smith and Mason valleys are anticipating fewer cuttings of alfalfa hay. Calving and lambing were well along. Livestock producers continued to supply supplemental hay to eastern herds and some stock movement to springs and summer ranges was beginning in the West. Main farm and ranch activities included field preparation, spring planting, irrigating, fertilizing, weed control and working livestock.
Preliminary Results: Honey Bee Colony Losses in the United States, Winter 2012-2013
EMBARGOED UNTIL MAY 7th.
May 1, 2013
Dennis vanEngelsdorp1*, Nathalie Steinhauer1, Karen Rennich1, Jeffery Pettis2, Eugene J. Lengerich3, David Tarpy4, Keith S. Delaplane5, Angela M. Spleen3, James T. Wilkes6,
Robyn Rose7, Kathleen Lee8, Michael Wilson9 , John Skinner9 , and Dewey M. Caron 10
for the Bee Informed Partnership.
Note: This is a preliminary analysis. A more detailed final report is being
prepared for publication at a later date.
The Bee Informed Partnership (http://beeinformed.org), in collaboration with the Apiary
Inspectors of America (AIA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA),
is releasing preliminary results for the seventh annual national survey of honey bee
colony losses. For the 2012/2013 winter season, a total of 6,287 U.S. beekeepers
provided validated responses. Collectively, responding beekeepers managed 599,610
colonies in October 2012, representing about 22.9%1 of the country’s estimated 2.62
Preliminary survey results indicate that 31.1% of managed honey bee colonies in the
United States were lost during the 2012/2013 winter. This represents an increase in loss
of 9.2 points or 42% over the previous 2011/2012 winter’s total losses that were
estimated at 21.9% (Figure 1). This level of loss is on par with the 6 year average total
loss of 30.5%2.
On average, U.S. beekeepers lost 45.1% of the colonies in their operation during the
winter of 2012/2013. This is a 19.8 point or 78.2% increase in the average operational
loss compared to the previous winter (2011/2012), which was estimated at 25.3%. The
difference between average loss and total loss is explained by the respondent pool: while
a majority of the respondents (95%) were backyard beekeepers, they managed a small
fraction of the colonies represented in the survey (6%). For this reason total loss (which
is more heavily influenced by commercial beekeeper losses) is more representative of
Survey participants indicated that they considered a loss rate of 15% as “acceptable,” but
70% of them suffered losses greater than this.
1 Based on NASS 2012 figures
2 Previous survey results found a total colony loss in the winters of 21.9% in the winter of 2011/2012, 30% in 2010/2011, 34% in 2009/2010, 29% in 2008/2009, 36% in 2007/2008, and 32% in 2006/2007 (see figure attached)
The Bee Informed Partnership is funded by the National Institute of Food and
2. USDA-ARS Bee Research Laboratory
3. The Pennsylvania State University,
4. North Carolina State University
5. University of Georgia
6. Appalachian State University
7. Robyn Rose, USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service,
8. University of Minnesota
9. University of Tennessee
10. Oregon state University