Not Out of the Woods, But On the Right Path

Monday, June 19, 2017
By: Dick Rogers, Principal Scientist and Beekeeper

We’re making progress in our efforts to improve honey bee health

Sometimes we’re so frequently bombarded with information about what’s wrong with our bees that it can be confusing to know how to interpret what appears to be good news.  I can certainly see how this might be the case with the recent report from the Bee Informed Partnership (BIP), which found winter honey bee colony losses were at their lowest level (21%) since these surveys began in the U.S. a decade ago. Without a doubt this is terrific news, but is it a trend or just an aberration?

Before addressing that question, let’s take a moment to reflect on some recent history.

Last month, I reported that I was optimistic that there would be a reduction in winter colony losses over last year, but I also provided reasons for caution and vigilance.  After all, we’ve seen this before, when good winter survival one year is followed by higher colony losses the next.  While there are many factors affecting the magnitude of these cyclical swings, a large part of this variability can be attributed to the severity of infestation by the invasive Varroa mite.   And just like any parasite/host relationship there are ups and downs, as Varroa abundance and impact follows close on the heels of improving colony strength and health.  

As a beekeeper and researcher, I’ve been dealing with Varroa for 30 years, ever since it was introduced to the U.S. in 1987 and quickly expanded its range throughout North America over the following few years. Beekeeping has never been easy, but the introduction of this parasite has forever changed the rules of the game, forcing beekeepers to cope with this formidable foe or face the loss of their livelihood altogether. On a positive note, this crisis has unleashed a torrent of research from scientists and the development and adoption of best apicultural practices among commercial beekeepers, all of which is helping to better manage this destructive pest.

How are U.S. Honey Bee Colonies Doing?

So back to the question:  Are the recent winter losses a trend or an aberration? The following charts support my belief that we are making steady progress in our collective efforts to improve honey bee health; however, there remains much work to do to achieve a truly sustainable bee industry.

Percent U.S. Winter Colony Loss  (Source: Bee Informed Partnership)
Chart 1

Millions of U.S. Colonies (Source: USDA NASS Compilation)
Chart 2

The two charts shown above are definitely good news for anyone who cares about bee health.  Despite the variability we see from year to year in winter colony losses, the trend line in Chart 1 shows a significant decline in winter losses since the beginning of the surveys in 2006, when public concerns about honey bees became the stuff of headline news.  This decline didn’t happen by accident and it tells me that beekeepers have really upped their game, not only in monitoring and treating to minimize Varroa infestations, but also in managing the overall health of their honey bee colonies.  One reason is that more tools are becoming available to help.  The Honey Bee Health Coalition’s Varroa Management Guide describes practical tips for monitoring and controlling this parasite, while the recent Healthy Colony Checklist provides an easy-to-use and thorough method to help beekeepers quickly monitor and plan management of their colonies on a more frequent basis.

The second chart, which depicts the total number of U.S. colonies, may be even more impressive.  While most commercial beekeepers have had to adapt to higher losses since Varroa came on the scene, they nonetheless have continued to build up their colony numbers to meet the increasing demand for crop pollination services.  Nowhere is this more evident than in California almonds, where more than half of all commercial honey bee colonies are placed in that state between January and March to pollinate this rapidly growing market segment.  Despite claims by some that honey bees are in decline, the trend line shows colony numbers are clearly increasing – and that’s great news for insect-pollinated crops, such as almonds, blueberries, apples, and many others.

Checking In:  The National Pollinator Strategy

The 2015 National Pollinator Strategy was based on the recommendations of a task force created by the White House to promote the health of honey bees and other pollinators. One of its three overarching goals was to reduce honey bee colony overwintering losses to no more than 15 percent within 10 years.  Considering the average losses have not been even close to that number since the pre-Varroa days, this seemed like an impossible task.  But guess what?  If the trend line of winter losses remains on its current trajectory, U.S. beekeepers will reach that target in the year 2024 – one year ahead of schedule!

A second major goal of the National Strategy is to improve pollinator nutrition by restoring or enhancing 7 million acres of forage for pollinators over the next 5 years through Federal actions and public/private partnerships.  While I don’t know how close we are to meeting that target, I do know that many groups are taking important steps to expand pollinator habitats. For example, by the end of 2016, nearly one million people and 117 partner organizations had joined Bayer’s Feed a Bee initiative. We began with a goal of planting 50 million seeds and working with groups such as The Wildlife Society we’ve planted a total of 2 billion wildflowers. Our latest goal is to plant seeds in every U.S. state by the end of 2018.

Underpinning the goals of the National Pollinator Strategy is a call for more research to understand the causes of pollinator losses and determine what we can do to prevent them. Many private and public institutions have responded to this call.  At Bayer, we have been investigating the factors involved for many years. Now we’re developing and promoting practical solutions, including evaluating how Smart Hive technologies can help beekeepers better manage their hives by remote monitoring of vital colony health information.   Also, we were instrumental in creating Healthy Hives 2020, a collaborative research initiative funded by Bayer and administered by Project Apis m. to find tangible ways to improve the health of honey bee colonies by the year 2020. 

We’re Making Progress toward Improving Bee Health

No doubt there will be many bumps along the road, from existing threats and from new ones, but I am optimistic about the future of beekeeping.  The positive trends, the promise of new research and the commitment of so many individuals and organizations gives me hope that things will continue to get better. While we are not out of the woods, we’re certainly on the right path.   


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