Bee Losses, by John Parker

We don’t particularly like them if they are buzzing around us when we are doing yard work or out in the field where they may be busy gathering pollen. But those bees are essential to our food supply because they are major pollinators of food crops. The United States Department of Agriculture says that one mouthful in three of the food in our diets directly or indirectly benefits from bee pollination.

In years past and including this year there have been concerns about winter bee loss in hives. This is a major concern and a lot of effort is going into finding out why this is happening.

Recently a survey conducted by the Informed Bee Partnership and the USDA looked at losses of honeybee colonies during the 2013-14 winter.  They found that total losses of honeybee colonies were 23.2 percent.  This is a considerable drop from the 2012-13 winters when the loss was 30.5 percent.  Current losses are still higher than beekeepers consider economically sustainable.  They say losses about 20 percent or lower are acceptable.

Beekeepers self-reported information for this survey, according to the survey.  About 7200 beekeepers who managed 564,522 colonies in the fall of 2013 answered the survey.  They represented about 22 percent of the U.S bee colonies.

Honeybee health is a complicated situation.  Factors such as viruses and other pathogens, parasites like varroa mites, lack of nutrition caused by low of pollen sources and limited pesticide effects all seem to kill bees and cause colony decline. 

Leading causes of colony decline reported by beekeepers in past surveys include queen failure and poor winter conditions as well as damage by the varroa mite.  Researchers believe that the varroa mite is one of the leading causes of colony losses.  This mite is an Asian bee parasite first found in the U.S. in 1987.  It is a persistent mite that takes an aggressive control program to keep losses down.

University of Maryland bee researcher Dennis vanEngelsdorp says that every beekeeper needs to have this aggressive control program in place.  Without it, they can suffer huge losses every other year or so.

He also says many small-scale beekeepers are not treating their hives and can lose many colonies.  The Agricultural Research Service and other USDA agencies, university programs and the Bee Informed Partnership are working together to develop programs that will provide both short and long term answers to these critical problems.

USDA says that some beekeepers find that feeding extra protein to their bees during winter months can strengthen hives and reduced losses.  They also suggest that home owners, as well as farmers, avoid using pesticides during the middle of the day when bees tend to be more active.

Some rumors have suggested that cell phones and towers have caused bee problems.  Research has not shown this to be a factor.

Planting pollinator friendly plants such as alfalfa, red clover and other clovers along with many garden flowers can provide food sources for bees.  Names of bee-friendly flowers and ornamentals can be found in many garden magazines and other sources.

We all need to give the important honeybees a lot of respect and do what we can to protect them.  Along with other pollinators such as birds and insects, they are essential to the food on our dinner table.

John Parker is an independent agricultural writer from Ashtabula County.