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Honey bee losses up 42% this past winter, threatening millions in U.S. crops

| Tuesday, May 7, 2013, 12:11 a.m.
According to a survey released Tuesday, May 7, 2012, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and two industry groups, the Bee Informed Partnership and Apiary Inspectors of America, 31.9 percent of managed bee colonies were lost this past winter. Losses in the winter of 2011-12 were 21.9 percent.

Nearly one-third of the managed honeybees in the United States died last winter — up 42 percent from the previous winter and a level of loss that threatens about 70 agricultural crops that depend on pollination.

According to a survey released Tuesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and two industry groups, the Bee Informed Partnership and Apiary Inspectors of America, 31.9 percent of managed bee colonies were lost last winter. Losses in the winter of 2011-12 totaled 21.9 percent.

The survey is based on responses from 6,287 American beekeepers, who manage 599,610 colonies, or about 23 percent of the nation's estimated total colonies. Beekeepers replenish depleted colonies every year by breeding or buying more queen bees, but chronic losses from disease, pesticides and other causes are threatening the availability of honeybees in the spring, a time of peak demand.

“It affects virtually every American whether they realize it or not,” warned Bob Perciasepe, acting administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency.

Among the crops that depend on bees are apples, blueberries, broccoli, celery, citrus fruits, melons, peaches, squash and strawberries. Without honeybees for pollination, the Department of Agriculture estimates, the nation would lose crops valued at $20 billion to $30 billion.

The total number of managed honeybee colonies in the United States has fallen from about 5 million in the 1940s to 2.6 million today, according to the USDA. At the same time, demand for pollination services has continued to increase.

Since 2006, the year scientists identified Colony Collapse Disorder, commercial beekeepers have lost bees at a rate of about 30 percent each winter.

“We have gone back up again to quite high levels of losses,” Dennis van Engelsdorp, a research scientist at the University of Maryland and honeybee expert, said of last winter's losses. “It is sort of scary.”

During the critical weeks of almond tree pollination in California's San Joaquin Valley this winter, “there was clearly a shortage of bees” even though the area attracts some of the nation's largest beekeepers, van Engelsdorp said.

About 20 percent of the beekeepers there in February lost at least half of their bee colonies, he said. “Good weather was the only thing that prevented things from being worse there.”

The causes of Colony Collapse Disorder are varied and complicated, say researchers who cite parasites, disease, genetics, poor nutrition and pesticides.

USDA bee researcher Jeff Pettis blames modern farming practices that often leave little forage area for bees, particularly in the Midwest. “If we have better forage areas, we'd go a long way toward improving pollinator health,” he said.

Colony Collapse Disorder is only the most recent threat to honeybees. The arrival of new pathogens and pests in the 1980s exacerbated declines in honeybee colony health. Increased use of pesticides also affects honeybee decline, though researchers and beekeepers are somewhat at odds over how much.

Last week, the European Commission, governing body of the 27-nation European Union, announced a two-year ban will begin in December on the use of pesticides clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam.

Van Engelsdorp is not convinced the ban will work. “I think it is more politically driven than driven by science,” he said.

Last month, four major U.S. beekeepers sued the EPA, demanding that clothianidin and thiamethoxam be taken off the market. The suit alleges the EPA should not have given conditional approval to the pesticides.

Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at

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