Honey Bees Still Struggling

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America's colonies are being severely taxed, and it could have serious implications for our future.

No, I'm not trying to start a revolution; I'm talking about bees. The USDA's Agricultural Research Service has just released a new survey about the health of managed honey bee colonies nationwide, and the results are disturbing: We're losing a full one-third of our roughly 2.46 million colonies each year.

From the press release:

Losses of managed honey bee colonies nationwide totaled 33.8 percent from all causes from October 2009 to April 2010...This is an increase from overall losses of 29 percent reported from a similar survey covering the winter of 2008-2009, and similar to the 35.8 percent losses for the winter of 2007-2008.

If you've been paying attention to the news over the past couple of years (or if you've seen that charming Bee Movie), I probably don't need to tell you why you should care about this. But basically, bees are important pollinators that make it possible for plants to bear many of the fruits and seeds which humans like to eat. Thus...fewer bees doesn't simply mean less honey; it means fewer (and more expensive) almonds, apples, avocados, oranges, watermelons and so on.

In fact, according to the ARS, you have honey bees to thank for about one of every three mouthfuls of food in your diet. The economy needs bees, too—they represent some $15 billion in added crop value.

So what's killing the bees? Beekeepers in this latest survey—which covered about a quarter of all colonies—pointed to factors like starvation, poor weather, and weak colonies going into winter. Then there's something called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a mysterious syndrome whose hallmark is absence: all or most of the adults are missing from affected hives, but no there are no dead bodies in sight. The cause is unknown, though theories abound that blame everything from pesticides and genetically modified crops to high-fructose corn syrup.

The incidence of CCD seems to be holding steady—it was reported in 28 percent of beekeeping operations that lost colonies, compared to 26 percent last year and 32 percent the year before—but "apparently manageable" disorders like starvation are on the rise.

Losses may get even more severe, the study's authors caution:

The survey reports only winter losses and does not capture colony losses that occur throughout the summer when queens or entire colonies fail and need to be replaced. Those summer losses can be significant. All told, the rate of loss experienced by the industry is unsustainable.

A complete analysis of the survey data will be published later this year; the abstract is available in the meantime.

If you're interested in learning how you can help to "save the bees," check out these suggestions from the organizers of National Honey Bee Awareness Day, which takes place on August 21 this year.