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Environment: Honey bee mortality drops slightly

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A bumblebee searches for pollen on a wildflower in Frisco, Colorado. bberwyn photo.

Colonies still dying off at an unsustainable rate

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Honey bee colonies continues to die off at an alarming rate last year, with beekeepers reporting that they lost 23.2 percent of their colonies during the 2013-2014 winter. The preliminary numbers are from a survey conducted by the Bee Informed Partnership and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The drop in mortality may be a small ray of hope in an otherwise bleak picture, showing mortality that is not economically sustainable for beekeepers. Of course it’s not just honey that’s at stake. Commercial beekeepers truck thousands of hives around the country to help pollinate many commercial food crops.

The winter losses survey covers the period from October 2013 through April 2014. Previous surveys found total colony losses of 21.9 percent in 2011-2012, 30 percent in 2010-2011, 33.8 percent in 2009-2010, about 29 percent in 2008-2009, about 36 percent in 2007-2008, and about 32 percent in 2006-2007.

About 7,200 beekeepers who managed 564,522 colonies in October 2013, representing 21.7 percent of the country’s 2.6 million colonies, responded to the survey.

There is currently is no way to tell why the bees did slightly better this year, according to both Pettis and Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a University of Maryland assistant professor who is the leader of the survey and director of the Bee Informed Partnership.

According to the survey, beekeepers said queen failure, poor wintering conditions, and damage by varroa mites, an Asian parasite first discovered in the U.S. in 1987.

And bees may be less able to fight off the invasive mites and other pests because of continued exposure to sub-lethal doses of neonicotinoids, system pesticides that are used on seeds and plants. The toxic chemicals persist in the plants, possibly suppressing immune functions in animals, Including bees) that eat them.

The suggestion that varroa mites are the prime cause of the sustained die-off raises the hackles among environmentalists, who point to more and more studies fingering systemic pesticides as the underlying cause.

Most recently, Harvard researchers directly compared survival rates between a set of hives exposed to neonicotinoids and another set that was not exposed. They documented significant losses in the hives exposed to the pesticides. Read more about the study here.

“What is clear from all of our efforts is that varroa is a persistent and often unexpected problem,” said vanEngelsdorp. “Every beekeeper needs to have an aggressive varroa management plan in place. Without one, they should not be surprised if they suffer large losses every other year or so. Unfortunately, many small-scale beekeepers are not treating and are losing many colonies. Even beekeepers who do treat for mites often don’t treat frequently enough or at the right time. If all beekeepers were to aggressively control mites, we would have many fewer losses.”

“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,” said Jeff Pettis, co-author of the survey and research leader of the Agricultural Research Service.

Whatever the exact cause, everyone agrees that the honey bee die-off is a big problem.

“These dire honey bee numbers add to a consistent pattern of unsustainable bee losses in recent years. When combined with steep declines in wild pollinators, they point to the urgent need for action,” said Lisa Archer, director of Friends of the Earth’s Food and technology program. “Bees are the canary in the coal mine for our food system. While various factors are contributing to bee deaths, a strong and growing body of science tells us we must take action now to protect bees from neonicotinoid pesticides.”

The European Union last year banned three neonicotinoids based on their suspected toxicity to bees, and regulators even raised concerns about human health impacts.

A recent Friends of the Earth report illustrated how chemical companies like Bayer are using tobacco industry tactics to confuse the public and delay potential regulations.

In 2013, U.S. Representatives Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced the “Saving America’s Pollinators Act,” which seeks to suspend the use of neonicotinoids on bee-attractive plants until EPA reviews all of the available data, including field studies.

“The solution to the bee crisis is to shift to sustainable agriculture systems that are not dependent on monoculture crops saturated in pesticides. It’s time to reimagine the way we farm in the United States and incentivize organic, local, sustainable agriculture practices that are better for bees and for all of us,” Archer said.

A new meta study by Oxford University researchers documents how organic agriculture supports 50 percent more pollinator and bee species compared with conventional, pesticide heavy agriculture.

 

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