In the worst colony die-off in nine years, American beekeepers lost 42.1% of their hives since April 2014, with the heaviest loss occurring in summer — a fact that has alarmed entomologists. As part of an annual survey in partnership with the US Dept of Agriculture, beekeepers reported that over two in five of their colonies had died, and now the task of bringing numbers back, means they will have to divide the surviving hives.
According to study co-author Keith Delaplane, “What we’re seeing with this bee problem is just a loud signal that there’s some bad things happening with our agro-ecosystems. We just happen to notice it with the honeybee because they are so easy to count.”
Extremely heavy losses were seen in Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, where 60% of the bees were wiped out.
And though these figures are startlingly high, what really has entomologists’ attention, is that more loss occurred in summer than winter — for the first time. In the summer of the previous year’s survey, beekeepers lost 19.8% of their bees, but that number rose to 27.4% this time around. Jeff Pettis, a scientist with the USDA, who studies bees, said the unusual summertime deaths also featured heavy queen loss concentrated in more mobile colonies, in itself a noteworthy characteristic.
Scientists who worked on the survey believe poor nutrition, mites, and pesticides are the likely culprits. Dick Rogers, chief beekeeper for Bayer — the pesticide manufacturer — downplayed the die-off as “not unusual at all”, adding that hives increased from 2.64 million for the survey period to 2.74 million in 2015.
Though a statistical improvement, this increase doesn’t indicate the overall health of the population. According to Delaplane, dividing the remaining hives to force population growth means the bees are pushed to their limit.
One of the possible culprits for such a decline has been gaining some attention — nicotine-derived, neonicotinoid pesticides, the vast majority of which are manufactured by Bayer. Neonics, as they’re known, are coated onto various crop seeds, so once planted, the crop grows with a built-in insecticide — but there is heated debate over whether neonics offer any benefit to crops at all, and their overuse appears to coincide with declining bee populations.
The European Union recognizes the connection and has placed restrictions on the use of neonics. In one study, the European Commission found indications that the pesticide could potentially be acting as a neurotoxin in humans. Bayer, of course, vehemently denies any connection to either the colony die-off or negative effects in humans.
Many campaigns seek to educate the public about bee health and why this is such an important issue. For more information, visit the #SaveOurBess Campaign or Friends of the Earth Bee Action Campaign and a petition and information is available from Save-Bees.org.
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