Bees Are Dying Year-Round Now

Winter is always a hard season for bees, but a new study indicates the spread of pesticide-dependent industrial agriculture is increasing summer death rates.

(Photo: Danny Perez/Flickr)

May 13, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

Honeybees are even worse off than we thought.

A new federal study found that the insects responsible for one out of every three bites of food you eat are not just dying off in the winter but declining in huge numbers in the summer.

Since April 2014, beekeepers have lost 42 percent of their colonies—noticeably more than last year’s 34 percent colony loss, and the second-highest rate in the past decade.

The winter colony losses, when bees are most stressed and vulnerable, have been improving in recent years. But the summer season—a supposed “bee’s paradise,” according to study coauthor Dennis vanEngelsdorp—is turning into a deadly time to be a bee.

“When we started this study, summer colony losses were mostly unheard of, so we didn’t include summer loss numbers,” said vanEngelsdorp, a professor at the University of Maryland. “It’s quite a quandary why these bees are dying at higher rates in the summer, a time when they should be flourishing.”

The study, a joint effort by the Bee Informed Partnership, the Apiary Inspectors of America, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only looks at nonnative, non-wild honeybees—easily countable thanks to the beekeeping community. Some 6,100 beekeepers managing 400,000 colonies responded to the survey.

For commercial beekeepers, colony declines can be handled by splitting healthy colonies in half to repopulate those that have collapsed. The total number of beehives was up from 2.64 million in 2014 to 2.71 million this year.

Still, nearly two-thirds of all beekeepers who responded to the survey had colony losses greater than 18.7 percent—the highest level of colony decline that’s still economically acceptable. In the Northeast, it was much worse, with states such as Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Maine all reporting 60 percent total annual losses of their bee colonies.

“If beekeepers are going to meet the growing demand for pollination services, researchers need to find better answers to the host of stresses that lead to both winter and summer colony losses,” said Jeff Pettis, a survey coauthor and a senior entomologist at USDA’s Bee Research Laboratory.

Backyard beekeepers saw large declines owing to mite infestations—something commercial beekeepers actively guard against. Large commercial operations saw the biggest declines in the summer, a time when pesticide use is at the highest.

“With the increasing prices of corn and soybean, more meadows are being plowed to make room for crops,” vanEngelsdorp said. That means fewer native plants for the bees to pollinate and more pesticide-laden crops to land on.

“These dire honeybee numbers add to the consistent pattern of unsustainable bee losses in recent years that threatens our food system,” said Tiffany Finck-Haynes, food futures campaigner with the environmental group Friends of the Earth. “The science is clear—we must take action now to protect these essential pollinators from bee-toxic pesticides.”

In a recent study, scientists looked at whether honeybees and wild bumblebees were equally susceptible to neonicotinoid insecticides, the most widely sprayed agricultural pesticides.

Both honeybees and wild bees chose neonicotinoid-laced food over other options, with the wild bees showing a greater attraction to the pesticide.

“The solution to the bee crisis is to shift to sustainable agriculture systems that are not dependent on monoculture crops saturated in pesticides,” Finck-Haynes said. “It’s time to reimagine the way we farm in the United States and incentivize organic agriculture practices that are better for bees and for all of us.”