Bee losses increase concerns about crops

It's a been a rough spring for bees in NY and elsewhere, and that could mean honey shortages, or at least a delay in the honey season.

The latest buzz comes from the annual winter loss survey released this week. Preliminary results indicate that more than 30% of managed honey bee colonies in the U.S. were lost during the 2012-2013 winter.

Photo: Nathan Rupert, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Photo: Nathan Rupert, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

More than 6,000 beekeepers responded to nationwide survey. It was conducted by the Bee Informed Partnership, which includes researchers and scientists from state universities around the country, and is funded by the USDA.

The level this winter is on par with losses in recent years.  The average total loss over the last 6 years is around 30%.

The Syracuse Post-Standard spoke with beekeeper and honey maker Alan Dixon this week.  He remembers years when he lost 5% of his 150 hives over the winter.  This year, he lost 75%.

"That's what it's been like lately," Dixon tells the newspaper.

A federal government report last week blamed the rapid decline of American honeybees on a variety of factors, including a parasitic mite, viruses, bacteria, poor nutrition, and genetics.

In contrast, the European Union voted this week to ban a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids that has been associated with the bee collapse.

But the U.S. report, issued by the EPA and USDA, ranked pesticides at the bottom of the list of potential causes.  It says there is no clear evidence pesticides were the leading cause of bee loss.

The U.S. report singled out a parasitic mite as "the single most detrimental pest of honeybees."

The problem no longer looks like Colony Collapse Disorder

Beekeepers started talking about "colony collapse disorder" about six years ago, where hives would seem healthy, but then suddenly collapse.  The bees seemed to just fly away, abandoning their hives.

According to NPR, beekeepers aren't seeing that as much anymore.  Now colonies seem to just get smaller and weaker.  Jeff Pettis is a lead researcher at the USDA Bee Research Lab in Maryland.  He tells Dan Charles, "They [the bees] can't generate heat very well in the spring to rear brood. They can't generate heat to fly,"

The declines are bad news for many crops, beyond honey. Growers depend on commercial beekeepers to pollinate crops like almonds, blueberries and apples.

But there may not be enough honeybees to pollinate those crops.

"Pettis says that this year, farmers came closer than ever to a true pollination crisis. The only thing that saved part of the almond crop in California was some lovely weather at pollination time."

Back in New York

At this time of year, New York beekeepers usually have new hives generating honey from dandelions.

Aaron Morris, president of the Empire State Honey Producers Association, tells the Post-Standard, "We're basically losing that early season."

Morris owns hives in the Albany area. He says there aren't enough bees yet, so honey they won't be making honey until clover season, in mid-June.

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