Honeybee colonies were lost over the winter, but the loss tally for 2014-15 is lower than it was just a year ago, preliminary results from an annual survey of beekeepers finds.
The survey, prepared by the Bee Informed Partnership in collaboration with the Apiary Inspectors of America and USDA, polled 6,128 beekeepers in the United States managing 398,247 colonies as of October 2014.
The partnership estimates that a total of 23.1% of the colonies managed in the Unites States were lost over the 2014-15 winter, a decrease in losses of 0.6% compared to the 2013-14 winter.
According to Bee Informed, these beekeepers represent about 14.5% of the country’s estimated 2.74 million managed honey bee colonies.
This is the second year in a row the reported colony loss rate is lower than the nine-year average total loss of 28.7%, Bee Informed said.
Summer losses also can be significant for beekeepers; commercial beekeepers appear to consistently lose greater numbers of colonies over the summer.
In the summer of 2014, defined as April – October, colony losses surpassed winter losses at 27.4%. This compares to summer losses of 19.8% in 2013, the partnership said.
Bayer CropScience, a key player in honeybee and pollinator health and preservation, said the results show that the long-term trend of overwintering losses shows improvement.
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As for the summer losses, Bayer said it's difficult to find any trends because the numbers have only been reported by USDA for three years.
"Summer losses are expected and common, however, because of Varroa, other disorders, queen issues, and pesticide residues in hives, especially high residues of bee protecting Varroacides," explained Dick Rogers, principal scientist/entomologist for Bayer CropScience's Bee Care Center. "Experts have yet to agree on what’s considered a normal range for summer losses."
Various honeybee/pollinator health considerations
Beekeepers, ag stakeholders and commercial ag companies have taken an interest in bee health as several research studies have been completed on the small pollinators, finding that a variety of causes may be to blame for lower populations and overwintering losses.
Various studies have found that potential causes could include, but aren't limited to: pesticide exposure, including neonicotinoids found in seed treatments; varroa mite pests; poor diets; limited habitat or forage; and others.
In a hearing Wednesday with the House Ag Committee Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research, Jim Jones, U.S. EPA Office of Safety and Pollution Prevention assistant administrator, said losses of pollinators are not only a threat to agricultural production but also a concern for natural plant communities and the services provided by ecosystems.
According to Jones, and previous statements from USDA, pollinators are responsible for one out of every three bites of food each person eats.
USDA Acting Chief Economist Dr. Robert Johansson further noted that putting a value on pollinators' impact is difficult because it's hard to evaluate what it may cost to replace their services and the value of lost pollination in terms of specialty crops that may rely 100% on pollinators' services.
In Wednesday's hearing, the witnesses also were questioned on the cooperation between their two agencies, with some legislators citing USDA's disagreement to results of a 2014 EPA study on neonicotinoid seed treatments, which found treatments to be of little benefit to soybean yields.
USDA, according to a letter submitted to the Federal Register, said EPA's review of neonics was an "incomplete assessment" and EPA released the report "without additional consideration of other crops or to USDA cautions about releasing a premature assessment of the costs and benefits of such seed treatments."
USDA and EPA have previously worked together on pollinator issues; In 2013, the agencies released a study of honeybee health, citing multiple potential causes for population declines.
Both also are tasked with assisting the Pollinator Health Task Force in developing a federal strategy to protect honey bees and other pollinators, though stakeholders await a forthcoming report from EPA and USDA regarding next steps for protecting pollinator health.