The May 2015 Apis Newsletter has been published. It contains the following analysis concerning recent reports of honey bee losses:
The bee informed partnership released its preliminary analysis of the latest survey on honey bee losses: “For the winter of 2013/14, 23.2% of managed honey bee colonies in the U.S. died. Nearly two-thirds of the respondents (65.4%) experienced winter colony loss rates greater than the average self-reported acceptable winter mortality rate of 18.9%. The 2013/14 winter colony loss rate of 23.2% is 7.3 points (or 23.9%) lower than the previous years’ (2012/13) estimate of 30.5% loss… and is notably lower than the 8-year average total loss of 29.6% .
“Preliminary results for the 2013/14 survey indicate that 20.0% of all colonies managed between April 1 2013 and Oct 1 2013 died. Responding beekeepers who managed bees over the entire April 2013 – April 2014 survey period reported losing 34.2% of the 670,568 colonies managed over this period. The annual loss differs from the sum of summer and winter losses reported above because the respondent pool differed as only respondents who reported for both the summer and winter period are included in the annual loss rate calculation.”
This fairly dry recounting was fodder for many over-the-top postings that are all too frequent in our hyper-sensationalized media environment. Just one of many examples concludes: “40% of US honeybee colonies were lost in the past 12 months, continuing a troubling spike in bee mortality over the past decade, according to the US Agricultural Research Service’s annual bee survey. And scientists still aren’t sure why.”
Elsewhere it was noted that losses are in fact less than last year and there’s actually what some call an “improvement” in survival by some: “Almost a quarter of U.S. honeybee colonies died over the past winter, according to new numbers released this morning—and that represents an improvement.” Finally, Bayer Health Care went even further, calling the current circumstances “good news.”
The USDA numbers estimate that colony numbers increased from 2.39 million in 2006 (USDA-NASS 2007) to 2.64 million in 2013. It concludes: “Colony losses have not resulted in declines, as colony losses can be mitigated by beekeepers splitting colonies to recover or even exceed winter losses. In addition, income from record high honey prices and increased compensation for almond pollination in California provide beekeepers incentives to increase colony numbers.
“When asked directly if a cause of loss was CCD (colony collapse disorder), beekeepers selecting CCD had higher losses compared to beekeepers that did not select CCD as a cause of death. This could be due to confusion of the definition of CCD, which may have been caused in part by the high media attention.
I prefer the Canadian numbers, because they appear to be more nuanced: The level of mortality for honey bee colonies over the winter of 2013/14 was high at 25.0 percent, although when Ontario is removed from the calculation the winter mortality is 19.2 percent. Preliminary analysis of mortality in Ontario indicates that a proportion of beekeepers had much lower level of mortality (9 to 22%) compared to provincial average. Further analysis by the Ontario government will be conducted for the Ontario 2013/14 wintering data.
“This year winter mortality across Canada follows an elevated year of colony winter mortality compared to 2012/13. It should be stressed that it is important to look at the long term, multi-year trend of winter mortality in Canada. It is important to consider variations, by region, beekeeping operations and year. It is notable that the winter losses has (sic) been reduced by 25 per cent, going from as high as 35% from 2007-2008 down to on average 20 percent since 2009/10.
“Responses from provincial surveys indicated that weather, poor queens, weak colonies in fall, Nosema, Varroa and pesticides were possible causes of reported wintering losses. Clearly the impacts of pest, pathogen and environmental factors continue to be a challenge through the year to beekeepers across Canada. There are a variety of strategies that have been pursued to address these challenges including applied and basic research,
biosecurity practices, pest and pathogen monitoring and surveillance, and responses to pesticide kill incidents through incident reports and data collection.
“There are also regulatory actions to address bee pests and pathogens that may threaten the industry to be considered. Technology transfer and extension services to beekeepers promoting best management practices have been supported. The future of beekeeping will depend on a multi-factorial approach to address risks associated with honey bee health and industry
development and sustainability in Canada.”
Given all this, what’s a person to conclude? Recent discussion on the Bee-L list indicates that there is skepticism about many of these numbers. They are simply not amenable to so-called “reductionist thinking,” and don’t really provide any kind of rational conclusion.