Bee Deaths Decline But Remain At Unsustainable Level

Photographer: Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images

Honeybees in their hive at an outdoor market in Washington, DC. Close

Honeybees in their hive at an outdoor market in Washington, DC.

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Photographer: Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images

Honeybees in their hive at an outdoor market in Washington, DC.

Bloomberg BNA — Honeybee deaths in the U.S. fell over the past year, according to a government report that said losses remained higher than beekeepers consider acceptable to remain in business.

Beekeepers reported a loss of 23.2 percent of their managed colonies in the October-to-April winter season, down from 30.5 percent in the same period a year earlier, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said May 15. The agency, which conducts the annual survey, declined to offer a theory for the year-over-year decline.

“Yearly fluctuations in the rate of losses like these only demonstrate how complicated the whole issue of honeybee health has become,” Jeff Pettis, leader of the USDA bee research center in Beltsville, Md., said in a statement. “Viruses and other pathogens, parasites like varroa mites, problems of nutrition from lack of diversity in pollen sources, and even sublethal effects of pesticides” are harming colonies.

Bees pollinate plants from apricots to zucchini and help increase crop values by $15 billion each year, according to the USDA. Lawmakers have sought more aid to pollinators to stem the losses, while environmental groups urge greater regulation of pesticides made by Bayer AG, Syngenta AG, and Dow Chemical Co.

‘Encouraging News'

The survey is “encouraging news to everyone who cares about bee health,” Bayer said in an e-mail statement. Even so, “managed bee colonies remain under serious stress,” the company said, pledging to help encourage better pollinator conditions.

Friends of the Earth, which in an April report criticized the pesticide industry for being as deceptive as the tobacco industry in challenging scientific research, said the USDA survey shows the rate of bee deaths remains at higher-than-acceptable levels.

“Bees are the canary in the coal mine for our food system,” Lisa Archer, food and technology director for the Berkeley, Calif.-based group, said in a statement. “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.”

Companies from Hershey Co., maker of Almond Joy candy bars to Burt's Bees lip-balm producer Clorox Co., rely on crops pollinated by bees. More than half the nation's commercial bees are needed to pollinate one crop: the $4.8 billion annual harvest of almonds, the country's most lucrative nut.

Collapse Disorder

Bee deaths reached alarming levels about 2006, when scientists identified Colony Collapse Disorder, a syndrome of unknown cause marked by disoriented bees failing to find their way back to their hives and dying. Beekeepers reported losing roughly a third of their colonies—up from 15 percent in previous years.

That has sparked calls for greater protection for bees, ranging from habitat preservation to a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, a class of chemicals that the European Union banned in December for two years after studies showed a link to colony collapse.

Manufacturers say getting rid of the products would force farmers and gardeners to use older products that cause greater environmental damage without improving conditions for bees.

Tim Tucker, a beekeeper in Niotaze, Kan., and president of the American Beekeeping Federation, said the greatest health threat to bees comes from pesticides, followed by mites and loss of habitat. Even so, his organization hasn't supported a chemical ban, saying they would prefer reduced use and more study.

Voluntary Survey

“The neonics, we're just now after 20 years finding out most of the ramifications and implications of their use. It's going to be another five to 10 years before we fully understand the effects,” he said.

Losses reported in the voluntary survey of about 7,200 beekeepers are also below the average 29.6 percent in the past eight years, when Colony Collapse Disorder began to be widely reported. Even with the improvement, the rate remains above the 18.9 percent on average that beekeepers said is acceptable for their economic sustainability, the USDA said.

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