Honeybees Suffer More Losses Following Harsh Winter

May 2, 2010; 10:00 PM ET
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Play video Disease and now severe weather are the biggest predators for the bee population throughout the United States.

The harsh winter of 2009-10 is being blamed for contributing to the stunting of North America's already-dwindling honeybee population.

According to the results of a survey conducted by the Apiary Inspectors of America (AIA) and the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), bee losses over the winter totaled 33.8 percent.

Pennsylvania State University's Dennis vanEngelsdorp and a team of researchers polled more than 22.4 percent of the 2.46 million honeybee colonies in the United States.

Winter die-offs have been reported across the continent, from Ohio to California, even reaching north to British Columbia.

Of the responding beekeepers, 29 percent attributed the weather to their losses, while 32 percent attributed starvation.

According to vanEngelsdorp, cold weather can help bees cluster and keep warm, but the bees need warm spells in order to leave the nest.

He added that bad weather in the autumn months can also negatively affect bees, as the fall is a crucial time for foraging.

"If there's a rainy fall, the bees aren't as able to forage," he said. "They need protein to take them into the winter."

North Dakota, a large honey-producing state, had a markedly rainy fall season. Fargo recorded nearly twice its normal precipitation in October and November of last year.

A colony of honeybees is seen at the United States Department of Agriculture's Bee Research Laboratory, Wednesday, April 25, 2007, in Beltsville, Md. About one-third of the human diet comes from insect-pollinated plants, and the honeybee is responsible for 80 percent of that pollination, according to the USDA. (AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

Honey bees not only produce wax and honey, they are also crucial to the pollination of many crops. One third of the human diet is from plants that rely on honeybee pollination.

Many crops, such as apples, onions, carrots and melons, rely on honeybees for the majority of their insect pollination, according to a 2010 report by the Congressional Research Service.

Almonds rely on honeybees for 100 percent of their total pollination, and California is the world's leader in almond production.

Barry Conrad, treasurer of the Central Ohio Beekeeper's Association, said many farmers rent hives to pollinate crops, and with the recent population losses, hives are becoming more expensive to rent.

As for the reason of the decline, some researchers point to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which causes honeybees to leave their hives and not return.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's website, the main symptom of CCD is a hive with a live queen, but little or no adult honey bees present, which indicates that many bees leave the hive, but do not return.

Although the exact cause of CCD is unknown, the Congressional Research Service said that several factors may be the cause, including parasites, pathogens, and environmental stresses. The USDA also hypothesizes that pesticides may be a contributing factor.

According to the AIA and ARS survey, however, only 28 percent of those polled reported that at least some of their colonies were found abandoned with no dead bees inside, the major symptom of CCD.

However, only 5 percent of beekeepers polled attributed CCD as the major cause of their losses.

Conrad also said that in addition to the bees leaving the hives and not returning, they are also dying sooner than they should be.

"There's something going on that's shortening the life of the bees," he said.

Bees have a summer lifetime of about 42 days, about 14 of which are spent foraging for nectar. Anything that shortens a bee's lifetime could have drastic effects upon the amount of pollination that happens, he added.

Several groups, including ice cream maker Haagen-Dazs, are working toward saving the honeybee population.

The National Resources Defense Council encourages people to make their gardens more bee-safe. They suggest planting a wide variety of plants and flowers, planting native species, and avoiding pesticides in order to keep honeybees healthy.


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