The USDA and the Apiary Inspectors Of America released the results of their annual colony loss survey in late May. Perhaps you saw or heard about the release. This is the third year this survey has been done and a comparison of the three years is enlightening. Unfortunately each year the surveys keep getting more sophisticated, better timed, and have a more focused population. Thus the results are better each year, with more and better data, but it is difficult to compare apples to apples. Nevertheless, well try.
The first, the 2007 survey reported an overall 31.8% loss during the winter and into the spring. That was all beekeepers reporting all losses. That means that nearly 757,000 colonies died in the U.S. that winter because there were 2.442 million colonies in the U.S. that year. Of these, 45% were lost, according to the survey respondents, to Colony Collapse Disorder. That comes to about 340,000 colonies lost to CCD that first year, or, 14% of U. S. bees died of CCD.
In 2008 the survey showed there was an overall loss of 35.2% of the U. S. colonies over winter, or nearly 860,000. Thats up 10% from the previous year. Of these 29% died from CCD, according to the published numbers, or right about a quarter million lost to CCD. That was a downward trend, which was encouraging, if you can think that losing a quarter million colonies is encouraging.
This springs survey showed that roughly 29% of the 2.3 million managed colonies were lost overwinter ... not quite a third, but a 20% reduction from the previous year. This, too, is encouraging, in the same sort of way, I guess. Of these 667,000 colonies -- only 15%, or 100,000 -- were lost to CCD symptoms. That's an outstanding 40% drop. Moreover, total losses were down yet again, showing that not only is CCD on the wane, but other colony loss causes are decreasing, or, and this is probably the case, those causes are not going away, but are becoming less of a problem.
Every year, however, commercial beekeepers had heavier losses than smaller operations ... certainly in numbers and consistently in percentage of colonies lost. This year was no different, but that makes good sense, since commercial beekeepers expose their bees to more problems as they move from crop to crop as they pollinate or move for honey, and they tend to work their bees even if they dont move. Not too hard ... most have learned that lesson, but still, a bit harder than the hobby beekeeper, like myself, with 7 colonies in the backyard.
And this year has seen some relief from the troubling weather patterns that visited us the previous two years which has helped the bees. And beekeepers have been keenly aware of nutritional upkeep and most are keeping better control of those nasty mites.
Still, agricultural pesticides are taking their toll, and though strongly suspected as one of the triggers for CCD, they are, in their own right, still as deadly, still as noxious, and still as abused by applicators and Departments of Agriculture as before (cases in Colorado and Utah ongoing are horrendous).
Not much has changed in that arena it seems.
So its no wonder the scientists, and most people, deem a 29% loss overwinter as unsustainable. I agree. Heres a comparison that supports that view...
In the mid-nineties a French study found average natural mortality in cows in intensive dairy farms was estimated to be 0.96%. Causes were metabolic, accidental, calving related, or respiration problems, while fully a third were from unknown causes. More older cows died than younger cows, with nutritional disease, digestive disorders and trauma predisposing factors of natural death.
Another study, this in California over the last five years, found that average natural mortality for milk cows from intensive dairy farms ranged from 2.1 8.1%, based on precipitation and temperature indexes. That is, low and high temperatures, and dry and wet periods caused greater mortality than average. Still, the highest losses were only 8.1%.
Beekeepers often compare a colony of honey bees to a diary cow since both produce a product on a regular basis (honey and milk), both produce young that can be raised to do the same (more honey and more milk), or produce other products (beeswax and beef), yet these youngsters too produce viable offspring before they go to their final reward. So losing a cow loses the cow, that cows milk, at least one and probably several calves, the calfs milk and that calves calf and so on. Losing a cow is expensive.
In comparison, losing a colony of bees is just as bad. You lose the pollination fee that colony may have made that year and beyond, plus the honey it would have made that year and years onward. When colonies become large they are split (beekeepers divide it into one, maybe as many as three smaller colonies, each a honey and pollination production unit), while some of these splits are used to produce more bees to sell to other beekeepers, queens for colonies, beeswax and propolis, plus the continued production of splits ... you can see that the loss of even a single colony is as dramatic as the loss of a single cow. Yet beekeepers are loosing nearly a third of their productive units each year and funding for research has absolutely stopped. Several research projects already started are continuing, but few new hands have offered to help. And even those government projects already funded have yet to produce much in the way of results.
The next time you have a glass of milk, ice cream, or a small container of yogurt ... think of the pregnant cow that is still producing that product (plus eating, by the way, tons of alfalfa each year, made possible by none other than the honey bee that just died). Then, when you put chocolate in that milk, blueberries on that ice cream, or have yogurt with strawberries, think of the whole colony of honey bees thats no longer here that made that food possible.
Twenty nine percent is truly unsustainable.
It is also criminal that it continues.
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