The honeybee population in the U.S. is stable, but a recent study conducted by the University of Maryland showed that beekeepers continue to lose a high percentage of bees each year.
“They’re not in danger of extinction,” said Nathalie Steinhauer, a doctoral candidate at the university — dispelling a common misconception that bees are at risk of disappearing.
She is part of a team of researchers at the university who have been monitoring honeybee losses across the country since 2006 under the direction of Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an assistant professor of entomology at Maryland.
Through a 10-year grant, the Bee Informed Partnership has surveyed thousands of backyard and commercial beekeepers from across the county to understand how different management practices affect honeybee health.
Nationally, beekeepers lost 33.2 percent of their honeybee colonies between April 2016 and April 2017, according to the university survey. Maryland hives did even worse, with a total annual loss of nearly 55 percent.
Despite being the second-lowest annual loss in the survey’s record, a 33 percent loss is still very high and in the long term could be dangerous for the beekeeping industry, Steinhauer said.
“It’s hard to imagine any other agricultural sector being able to stay in business with such consistently high losses,” vanEngelsdorp said in a news release of the survey’s 2016-2017 findings in May.
The No. 1 threat to honeybee colony health is varroa mites, Steinhauer said. The mites arrived in the U.S. in the 1980s and have wreaked havoc on honeybee hives ever since.
“[The] history for controlling mites has been a little rocky,” Steinhauer said.
Beekeepers first tried using chemicals, but have since moved away from that method because of residues they can leave in the honey. Some have adopted organic products and non-chemical techniques, but they are more labor-intensive and have to be done more frequently, Steinhauer said.
David Maloney, owner of Dave’s Honey Farm in the city of Frederick, is finishing a 42-day treatment for varroa mites in his hives. Maloney starts treatment in mid-July after he pulls the honey, and then he treats again in November when the mites are more exposed inside the hive.
Two years ago, Maloney wasn’t as diligent about treating for mites, and he lost an entire colony to deformed wing virus.
Varroa mites feed on bees and can pass on viruses. Deformed wing virus grossly deforms the bees’ wings so they look like the antlers on a stag, Maloney said. Many of the other viruses, though, present no physical signs of disease.
Since getting on a treatment schedule, more of his colonies have survived. Last winter, he had no losses at all, he said.
The University of Maryland has found that without treatment, most honeybee colonies will die within three years of a varroa mite infestation, Steinhauer said. The university detects varroa mites in more than 90 percent of all colonies, and expects to find it in 100 percent.
There were 2.89 million honeybee colonies in the U.S. in April 2017, according a U.S. Department of Agriculture report released in August.
The USDA consulted the University of Maryland as well as groups in Canada and Europe that were already collecting data on honeybee colonies while designing its own survey, said Joshua O'Rear, commodities statistician for bees and honey at the USDA. The federal agency began collecting data in 2015 and released reports in 2016 and 2017.
The USDA's results have matched the university's “pretty well,” which is reassuring, Steinhauer said.
Across the country, beekeepers actively manage their colonies by rearing queens and then splitting hives into new colonies. Bees naturally swarm and break off into new colonies, but for many modern beekeepers the creation of new hives has become a necessary task to replace losses.
The population of honeybees is not declining in the U.S., because commercial beekeepers are working diligently to rebuild colonies after losses. It can be hard, though, for commercial beekeepers to sustain a business when they are constantly rebuilding from losses, Steinhauer said.
According to the USDA, Maryland lost a higher percentage of colonies than it renovated in 2017:
- January to March: 23 percent lost, 3 percent renovated.
- April to June: 2 percent lost, 10 percent renovated.
One way that residents can help honeybees and the other 1,000 species of native bees is by planting pollinator strips and gardens that introduce more nectar into the environment for bees to harvest.
The natural landscape has changed dramatically even in the last 20 years, Steinhauer said. There are fewer flowers and less diversity in the landscape, which means poorer nutrition for colonies.
Maloney remembers when he used to go out in the morning with a cup of coffee and dig dandelions out of his yard. Now, he said it’s “disgusting how many weeds” he has in his yard. He also mows his yard less to let the bees have better access to the clover.
People can also plant local, native plants that flower throughout the season, which can be a gateway to using fewer pesticides and herbicides that also negatively affect bees and other pollinators, Steinhauer said.
“When people pay attention to bees, that might get them interested in the environment and ecology in general,” Steinhauer said.