A yearly federal survey of beekeepers released Thursday shows fewer colony losses occurred in the United States over the winter of 2013-2014 than in recent years, but beekeepers say losses remain higher than the level they consider to be sustainable.
According to pollinator loss survey results, total losses of managed honey bee colonies from all causes were 23.2% nationwide. That number is above the 18.9% level of loss that beekeepers say is acceptable for their economic sustainability, but is a marked improvement over the 30.5% loss reported for the winter of 2012-2013, and over the eight-year average loss of 29.6%.
More than three-fourths of the world's flowering plants rely on pollinators, such as bees, to reproduce, meaning pollinators help produce one out of every three bites of food Americans eat, USDA said.
According to Jeff Pettis, co-author of the survey and research leader of the Agricultural Research Service Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., a variety of factors can contribute to bee losses, so it's difficult to discern why this year's losses were lower than previous years.
"Yearly fluctuations in the rate of losses like these only demonstrate how complicated the whole issue of honey bee heath has become, with factors such as viruses and other pathogens, parasites like varroa mites, problems of nutrition from lack of diversity in pollen sources, and even sublethal effects of pesticides combining to weaken and kill bee colonies," Pettis said.
The winter losses survey covers the period from October 2013 through April 2014. About 7,200 beekeepers responded to the voluntary survey.
A complete analysis of the bee survey data will be published later this year. Read a summary of the analysis on the Bee Informed Partnership website.
USDA launches efforts aimed at bee health
Bee Health Summit. USDA said Thursday it plans to host a summit this fall aimed at addressing the nutrition and forage needs of pollinators. The summit will take place in Washington, D.C., on October 20-21. Attendees will discuss the most recent research related to pollinator loss and work to identify solutions.
Apiary Camera. USDA also launched the People's Garden Apiary bee cam at the USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C., as an additional effort to increase public awareness about the reduction of bee populations and to inform Americans about actions they can take to support the recovery of pollinator populations.
The USDA "Bee Watch" website will broadcast honey bee hive activity live over the Internet 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. Created in 2010, the People's Garden Apiary is home to two beehives. The bees are Italian queens, the most common bee stock and the same used in many honey bee colonies throughout the United States.
Thursday's announcements follow previous federal efforts to understand and control honeybee losses. USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency just more than a year ago released a comprehensive report detailing all possible reasons for colony losses, finding that a multitude of factors are linked in some way to losses, though no one factor is the definitive culprit.
Following the report, USDA earlier this year authorized a Pollinator Working Group comprising representatives from 10 USDA agencies to better coordinate efforts, leverage resources, and increase focus on pollinator issues across the Department.
USDA also announced $3 million available to help agriculture producers in five states (North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan) provide floral forage habitats to benefit pollinating species on working lands. The Honey Bee Pollinator Effort is intended to encourage farmers and ranchers to grow alfalfa, clover and other flowering habitat for bees and other pollinators.
Meanwhile, ag companies are also continuing efforts to provide bee care and health resources. Bayer CropScience in April unveiled its latest effort, a $2.4 million Bee Care Research Center located in Research Triangle Park, N.C.
The company also manages the Eastern Bee Care Technology Station in Clayton, N.C., field stations in Fresno, Calif.; Ontario, Canada, and a Bee Care Center at the joint global headquarters campus of Bayer CropScience and Bayer Animal Health in Monheim, Germany.