Honeybees continue to die off at 'unsustainable' level
Winter losses of honeybees impacted by still-unexplained die-offs remained about the same as the previous five years, but the level still concerns keepers in Pennsylvania.
About 30 percent of managed honeybee colonies across the nation died between October and April, according to a preliminary analysis of an annual survey conducted by the Department of Agriculture and the Apiary Inspectors of America. Winter losses have ranged from 29 percent to 36 percent since late 2006.
"That's unsustainable," said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a senior extension associate and bee expert at Penn State University.
Numbers for Pennsylvania will be released in a more detailed report later this year.
"The lack of increase in losses is marginally encouraging in the sense that the problem does not appear to be getting worse for honeybees and beekeepers," Jeffrey Pettis, a USDA entomologist who helped conduct the study, said in a news release. "But continued losses of this size put tremendous pressure on the economic sustainability of commercial beekeeping."
Beekeepers reported that losses of 13 percent would be economically acceptable, the survey said. Average colony losses for individual beekeepers was about 38 percent, down from 42 percent last year.
About a third of those who reported losses said they did not find dead bees -- one of the characteristics of Colony Collapse Disorder, a devastating honeybee die-off that surfaced about five years ago and for which there still is no known cause.
Survey reports were fielded from 5,572 beekeepers who manage more than 15 percent of the country's estimated 2.7 million colonies.
Commercial beekeepers, including about a half-dozen large operations in Pennsylvania, are the "last nomadic farmers in America," vanEngelsdorp said. They truck their hives around the country to pollinate crops such as apples in Pennsylvania, almonds in California and blueberries in Maine.
David Hackenberg, a commercial beekeeper in Union County, last week delivered 7,500 hives of honeybees -- 3,000 of his own -- to Maine. His bees this year pollinated blueberry crops in Georgia and apples in Pennsylvania. In a few weeks, they will go to upstate New York to produce clover honey.
Overall losses for the year could be 65 to 70 percent, with some beekeepers losing more, he said.
"We used to operate at 5 to 10 percent losses per year," Hackenberg said. "Those days are over."
Joe Zgurzynski, a master beekeeper in O'Hara, lost two of his 15 colonies during the winter, bringing to three the total he has lost since 2001.
"My guess is that it was a hard winter for Pennsylvania," said Zgurzynski, 42, president of Burgh Bees, a nonprofit organization that promotes beekeeping in the city. "It's kind of a downward trend, but it's still not where it should be."