Although as many as 40+% of U.S. bees died last winter, with as many as half of them perishing from whatever causes colony collapse disorder (CCD), not nearly that proportion of U.S. beekeepers experienced these problems. In fact, our estimate is that fewer than 5% of U.S. beekeepers have had a run in with CCD. As you can imagine though, this small number of beekeepers commands a huge number of beehives, thus the disparity...
While Im estimating, here are some recent figures we have come up with that reflect what the U.S. population of beekeepers is. Analyzing our subscribers, honey board resources, talking to beekeeping supply companies, state regulatory agents and beekeeping association leaders, we conclude that there are just under 1,000 commercial beekeepers in the U.S. These are people who make their living from honey bees... making honey, hiring out for pollination, selling bees in season, making or selling beekeeping supplies, selling beeswax, and raising and selling queen honey bees all can be part of the business. Of these, honey and pollination are generally the most practiced and the most lucrative.
After that we figure there are about 5,000 part-time or side-line beekeepers. These folks run anywhere from 50 to 300 or so colonies, and generally are family run operations, with spouse and children part of the picture. They are saving for college funds, maybe a retirement income, a family business that the kids can be a part of, or as a part-time job that generates serious and necessary income for the family.
The rest of us, the back yard beekeepers, are like back yard gardeners we are everywhere and there are thousands of us. We figure there are about 90,000 95,000 back yard beekeepers in the U.S. today. We have on average 10 or fewer colonies and keep them, yes, in the back yard or in bee yards that are usually close by.
From these calculations then we figure there are about 100,000 or so beekeepers in the U.S., total. Of those, probably 2,500 are big enough to be called serious businesses, another 3,000 4,000 pretty serious, and the rest chase honey bees as a hobby or enjoyable pastime.
The beekeepers that lost honey bees last fall and winter to CCD were predominately commercial and large side line beekeepers. Whether thats because they are the beekeepers who were able to note the causes of their problems (CCD-like symptoms), or just those who were reporting them is unclear. We do know that the official count by USDA was from only commercial operations, so that helps sort it out a bit.
Nevertheless large beekeeping operations seem more prone to CCD because they are in close proximity to thousands of other colonies when pollinating almonds, and thus most likely to find problems or have problems find them. If I were to lose 50% of my colonies only four would perish. When a large beekeeper loses 25%, and the total is 10,000 colonies... that gets noticed and that makes up a big chunk of bees that died.
Earlier I said that only 5% or so of U.S. beekeepers had a problem. Those 5%, however, control about 90% of the all the beehives in the U.S., so when that small crowd has a problem, it causes a big headache everywhere else.
But for the rest of us, its been a pretty average spring... mostly. Certainly you are aware of the areas still suffering under severe drought and extreme heat. And the Midwest is slowly washing away with storms and floods and more rain in the forecast. These sections of the country, interestingly, are some of the most productive honey making areas of the U.S. and where most commercial beekeepers keep their bees during the summer. If these parts of the country dont get more rain, or less rain... depending on where you are... pretty soon, its going to be another disastrous crop year again, and bees will suffer all fall and all winter because of the shortages of food and water.
Two years ago the drought really took a toll on honey bees, and it caught beekeepers more or less by surprise. That fall and winter is when CCD really hit its stride and lots of bees were lost... some, perhaps, to CCD, but many to severe nutritional deficiency problems. Lots of beekeepers learned a lesson that year:
Drought = Food Problems
Last year the drought didnt go away, but the lessons learned from the previous year were not lost on most beekeepers, whether backyarders or commercial operations. They took time, money and food and made sure the bees were well nourished. Even so, a 44% loss last winter took a serious toll, but the causes seemed less drought-related than harsh winter- and CCD-related. Still, the number of colonies perishing from CCD increased this past year and that even after beekeepers took pains to prepare them for harsher times. So it hasnt gone away, and it seems to be getting worse, and when coupled with other environmental problems its still a tough world out there for our honey bees.
But for me, so far this year it has been fantastic, bee wise. Early spring weather was cooler and wetter than I like, though, and the plants were slower to bloom than usual. But really thats not a bad thing because I was late in getting to my beekeeping chores and by the time I was ready, so were the bees. And now for the most part my bees are thriving... they are making honey and raising lots of young and they are healthy and sound. If you want an anthropomorphic comparison... when I stand in my beeyard, bees zinging past right and left, above and beyond, for the first time in years they actually sound happy.
Thats a healthy and pleasant change, and I enjoy it immensely.
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