Honeybee colonies stable despite steep losses

The number of U.S. honeybee colonies for those operations with five or more colonies is holding steady, as beekeepers add colonies to offset annual losses.

Honeybee colonies numbered 2.69 million on April 1, USDA National Agricultural Statistics reported.

Losses were substantial with quarterly tallies totaling more than 1.47 million April through April, but beekeepers compensated by adding more than 1.65 million colonies.

The Bee Informed Partnership estimates 30.7 percent of managed colonies in the U.S. were lost during the winter, Oct. 1, 2017 through April 1, 2018, an increase of 9.5 percent over the previous year and 2.8 percent over the 10-year average.

While summer losses were on par with the previous year at about 17 percent, the partnership estimates total losses April through April at 40.1 percent, a 2.7 percent increase over the annual average since 2010-2011.

Although it was a pretty good year for Chris Hiatt — vice president of the American Honey Producers Association and a beekeeper who operates with his four brothers in California, Washington and North Dakota — he said he’s not surprised by the higher losses. Hurricanes in Florida and Texas and drought and wildfires in different areas of the country no doubt took a toll in 2017, he said.

“It was a perfect storm,” he said.

Hopefully, this year is better. But the issue of pesticides and mites are still here, he said.

Varroa mites remain the top health stressor, with affected colonies reported at 55.3 percent in the October through December 2017 quarter.

Other bee health stressors included other pests and parasites, diseases, pesticides, weather, starvation, insufficient forage, queen failure and damaged or destroyed hives.

Losses attributed to colony collapse disorder, at 255,070, accounted for 17.3 percent of total losses, compared to 21.2 percent the previous year. But year-over-year losses attributed to the disorder were only higher in the January through March 2018 quarter, which at 77,800 were 15 percent higher than a year earlier.

Losses are cyclical. A lot of big operators could have normal losses for two years and get hit in the third, Hiatt said.

In addition to colony collapse disorder, colony loss can occur from loss of forage leading to poor nutrition, insecticide exposure, diseases and parasites.

Despite elevated losses since the advent of colony collapse disorder in 2006, the number of managed colonies has remained relatively stable, ranging from 2.3 million to 2.8 million between 1996 and 2016, according to USDA.

To stay in business, beekeepers have to maintain a certain number of hives, so they split their hives to start new ones, Hiatt said.

“You just keep making more divides to make up for the dead-outs,” he said.

But divides weaken the original colony, and the results can be seen in USDA data on honey production, he said.

Domestic honey used to account for two-thirds of U.S. consumption, with only one-third coming from imports. Now it’s swapped, and last year three-fourths of domestic consumption was imported, he said.

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