Bee colonies stable despite steep annual losses

More than a decade since the appearance of the mysterious “colony collapse disorder,” beekeepers still face abnormally high levels of bee die-offs, according to USDA.

Despite the greater annual mortality rate, however, beekeepers have kept the total number of hives stable and generally haven’t sharply hiked up their pollination service fees, the agency found.

Losses of honeybee colonies over winter have averaged nearly 29 percent since 2006, when CCD was discovered, which is roughly twice the historical rate, according to a new USDA report, “Economic Effects and Responses to Changes in Honey Bee Health.”

Apart from that disorder, bees have suffered from mites, diseases, pesticide exposure, poor nutrition and other stressors, the report said.

While the winter loss rate has gone as high as 36 percent, the total number of colonies in the U.S. has fluctuated between 2.3 million and 2.8 million over the past decade, according to the study.

The data indicates beekeepers have coped with the higher winter losses by splitting hives and buying additional ones, USDA said.

The number of colonies in the U.S. hit a record of nearly 6 million in 1946, but then dropped by about half even before the introduction of varroa mites and associated viruses in the 1980s, the agency found. The decline was probably caused by market factors, such as the availability of alternative sweeteners.

“Despite the elevation in honey bee colony loss rates since 2006, there is little evidence of disruption to agricultural crop or retail food markets in terms of rising prices or decreasing availability,” said the USDA report, adding that “most of the adjustment has occurred at the level of the beekeeper, with less adjustment at downstream levels in the production and marketing chain.”

The current cycle of steep hive loss and replenishment is sustainable only in the short term, but not if problems with pests and disease continue to climb, said Harry Vanderpool, president of the Oregon State Beekeepers Association.

“There is no easy money in agriculture and beekeeping follows that saying to the word,” he said.

Since the mid-1980s, for example, the number of treatments necessary to fight varroa mites has mounted, Vanderpool said. “Now, it’s at a point of almost continuous treatments or manipulations.”

Vanderpool said he’d like to see data based on a more rigorous process than the survey questions used by USDA, which can be prone to misinterpretation.

Beekeepers also face different economics based on region.

Tim May, an Illinois beekeeper and president of the American Beekeepers Federation, said annual colony losses in his area have hovered at 65 percent to 70 percent in recent years.

Problems often begin even before the onset of winter, which May attributes to the popularity of systemic neonicotinoid pesticides used on corn and soybean seeds.

“By the end of summer, they seem to be falling apart,” May said of his bees. “I’ve thought about getting out myself because it’s not sustainable.”

Even with the challenges confronting beekeepers, the cost of pollination services has appreciated only modestly for most crops, according to USDA’s report.

The exceptions are almonds and plums, for which pollination service costs have more than tripled since the 1990s, the agency found.

While the survey pegged overall beekeeper income from pollination services at about 40 percent, in Oregon the proportion is closer to 70 percent, said Vanderpool.

Vanderpool said there has been a steep increase in pollination prices in California’s almond groves, which reflects the difficulty of moving bees there during the February pollination.

“It’s the toughest time of year to provide a good, strong hive,” he said.