May 15, 2015

Bees Are Dying and We'll All Pay for It

Bee colonies are still dying, and food may get more expensive as a result.

Beekeepers in the U.S. lost 42.1 percent of their bee colonies between April 2014 and April 2015, according to a recent annual survey. Those losses continue a trend of die offs among bee colonies, which beekeepers say could drastically affect our food supply.

Without bees to pollinate crops, we stand to lose many staple foods that we eat every day, from apples and tomatoes, to onions and berries.

It's normal to lose some colonies. Beekeepers say it's acceptable to lose about 18.9 percent of colonies during a winter season. At that rate, it's still economically feasible to keep bees without charging higher prices to rent them out for pollination. But winter losses have been much higher than that for at least a decade. Last winter, U.S. beekeepers lost 23.1 percent of their colonies, just a slight improvement from the winter of 2013-2014. Those numbers look like a huge improvement over previous years, though; from 2006-2013, winter losses averaged about 30 percent.

Winter losses tell only part of the story. In fact, U.S. beekeepers lost enough colonies during the last two summers to make up for the improvements in winter losses. Last summer, about 27.4 percent of colonies died out. Large-scale commercial beekeepers, those with more than 50 colonies, seem to be especially prone to losing bee colonies during the summer.

Why are bee colonies dying? Several reasons: sometimes they succumb to winter cold, and sometimes a colony falls prey to mites, viruses, or fungi. Colony collapse disorder, or CCD, is one of the biggest problems, and it's actually pretty creepy. Colonies that have succumbed to CCD are eerily deserted. The adult bees are gone, but there aren't any bodies. It's likely that the workers died elsewhere, but they left with unhatched young in the brood chamber, ample supplies of food in the hive, and the queen all alone in the hive.

Researchers think CCD is the product of an unfortunate combination of pesticides, parasites, pathogens, and nutritional problems caused by less diversity and availability of sources of pollen and nectar. Any of those causes could also contribute to more ordinary kinds of colony loss.

We're not in danger of losing bees altogether, but if these losses continue, produce could get more expensive. Most commercial beehives don't make their money on honey; they earn their living by renting out their bee colonies to pollinate farmers' crops. Often, this involves actually loading the beehives onto a truck (at night, when the bees are asleep in the hive) and driving to a farm.

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