Honey bee colonies up in winter, down in spring

A new report from USDA signals a little sweet news for honey bees.

January 2020, the number of colonies nationwide was up 8% from January 2019, an increase from 2.67 million to 2.88 million colonies.

Winter, experts say, is usually the season with the most hive loss. But honey bees this year had a better-than-usual winter.

“A lot of bees normally die in the winter. It’s cold. They’re stuck in their house. That’s when a lot of winter diseases can happen. Varroa mites can cause problems in the winter if they haven’t been treated properly in the fall. If it’s too cold, bees can freeze, and if it’s too hot, they’re active and eat through their honey. Maybe we just hit a perfect winter,” said Katie Buckley, pollinator health coordinator at Washington State Department of Agriculture.

This spring and summer have been harder on bees. January through March, this year’s hive losses of 14% were similar to last year’s losses. And beekeepers lost 8% of hives April through June.

These numbers aren’t shocking or historic, entomologists say, but seeing similar losses year after year can be disheartening.

USDA lists varroa mites, which carry a deadly illness called the deformed wing virus, as the No. 1 stressor.

Buckley of WSDA said this year’s losses may be attributable to the usual suspects — including weather, diseases and parasites.

Some states have fared better than others.

Adam Peters, USDA honey bee statistician, said Washington state reported less than 3% hive loss, the lowest ever for the state since the agency started keeping track.

Despite losses, beekeepers are celebrating the small victories.

The 8% colony increase, statisticians say, means the industry is doing comparatively OK. At the very least, it means good propagation of bees is still happening.

Peters of USDA said those “added hives” mean beekeepers this year not only replaced, but exceeded, the number of lost hives with new ones. When a beekeeper loses hives, he said, they will often create new ones, either by purchasing starter kits from breeders or by “splitting” hives into smaller ones.

Buckley of WSDA said splitting hives is also necessary to prevent bees from swarming.

USDA’s data contrast with recent survey results from the Informed Bee Partnership, which reported that April 2019 through April 2020, U.S. beekeepers lost an estimated 44% of colonies.

USDA statisticians say the Bee Informed Partnership is a respectable source, but the organization likely uses a smaller sample size, different methodology and different survey questions than USDA.

Even USDA will be updating its numbers for the past two quarters later this year.

Peters, the statistician, said beekeepers typically give more detailed survey answers during their “down time,” while their replies are often more generalized during their busiest times of the year.

But even if the numbers change, he said, they’re likely to show the bee industry had a good winter and an average spring and summer.

“I see that as a good thing, but that’s because I’m the honey bee stat guy,” he said.