From the most comprehensive survey taken to date, due in large part to beekeepers who read Bee Cultures CATCH THE BUZZ news service, (archives) and other industry media, the Apiary Inspectors of America (AIA) and the USDA have completed their fourth annual census of winter honey bee colony losses. What they found was troubling, to say the least. But if you carefully read the numbers, they are even more troubling.
Just over 4,200 beekeepers completed the survey, ranging from backyard beekeepers with a handful of colonies, to a host of commercial operations with thousands of colonies each. All told, the beekeepers that responded own just over 22% of all the colonies in the U.S. That comes to 551,000 colonies, a fair sized sample, and certainly more representative than previous years.
If you consider how many colonies the respondents lost as a percent of how many colonies there in the U.S., it is estimated that 33% of all the colonies in the U.S. died last winter. A third of all the bees in the U.S. died last winter. One Third!
But thats not the worst part. Of those who answered the survey, they lost (are you ready?) over 40% of their colonies... Over 40%. When you look at the average losses of respondents from the previous three years, this represents fully a 23% increase in the average number lost. Recall, averages mean that some beekeepers lost far more than 40%, and some lost less than 40%. Some that I know, with thousands of colonies, lost 60%, 70% and a few over 90% of their bees.
The first question, of course, especially for this contribution, is was Colony Collapse Disorder a part of this massacre? And yes, according to evaluations by the respondents, it was... but these responses are not backed by hard scientific data but rather good beekeeper opinion. This can be argued with, but the trend is telling, and after these many years Ive found it to be fairly reliable. Nevertheless, only 28% of operations reported that at least some of their dead colonies were found dead without dead bees, one of the critical symptoms of Colony Collapse Disorder. However this group lost a total of 44% of their colonies, as compared to the total loss of 25% experienced by beekeepers who did not report losses indicative of Colony Collapse Disorder. 44 vs. 25.
One critical Colony Collapse Disorder factor is that this survey does not include colonies that perish during other times of the year... from any causes. And, as we know, Colony Collapse Disorder raises its ugly head often in the fall, before winter losses are considered. So those arent in this survey, unfortunately.
But bees die from lots of causes, and last years mostly really lousy weather contributed to last years really lousy production of food for bees... nectar and pollen. Poor weather means poor growing season means poor crops means not much food means unhealthy bees means bees susceptible to attacks from other nasties.
Now heres a dilemma. If Mother Nature does not provide enough to eat for bees in an area, whats a beekeeper to do? On one hand, a beekeeper can feed the bees sugar or corn syrup. But if he does, he is criticized for feeding an unnatural diet to these all natural creatures. But if he doesnt, they die. You can make any choice you want based on any philosophy you have, but I wont stand by and let my bees die if I can help it. I doubt any farmer would intentionally let his livestock perish if saving them somehow was possible.
But its difficult and expensive to feed bees. And if it costs too much, takes too much time, the weather doesnt cooperate... a beekeeper sometimes simply cant get them all fed. So some die of starvation. Of the bees that died last winter... over 60% died because of foul weather and poor food resources. Mother Nature took her toll, thats for sure.
Interestingly, only 5% of the beekeepers who responded to this survey felt that colony losses were attributable to Colony Collapse Disorder. What the release from the AIA doesnt include is... what number of colonies are owned by this small, but perhaps significant number of beekeepers? Right now, we dont know, but it will come out in the wash when the final numbers are reviewed and published.
For now, know that a third of all the bees in the U.S. died last winter... and they have to be replaced. Lets hope Mother Nature is a better Mother this season.
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