Four years of study of the great die-off of North America’s honey bees revealed the scope of the losses. No single cause of the honey bee colony losses emerged, however combinations of pathogens appear to be involved when bee hives lose their adult populations. Surveys of beekeepers revealed that over-winter colony losses averaged 30 percent; however, individual beekeepers’ losses varied widely. One fourth of the beekeepers surveyed experienced winter-time losses above 55 percent, and another fourth of the beekeepers had winter losses of 15 percent or less. Replacing lost colonies is expensive, and thirty percent annual losses are not considered sustainable. If the beekeeping industry cannot be maintained, a large segment of our food production is at risk. The risk increased in the past decades with the arrival of parasitic mites when the feral honey bee colonies which contributed to food crop pollination largely disappeared. What has been learned from the surveys of beekeepers is that losses vary among beekeepers and from one location to the next.
A new five-year study of beekeeping operations is intended to identify the factors that allow some beekeepers to keep bees with low colony losses. The investigation, funded by the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, will look at beekeeping management practices and environmental conditions in the bee yard and forage areas. Penn State’s enthusiastic Dennis vanEnglesdorp will lead the project. Those who would like to participate in the project can sign up at http://beeinformed.org/. The study will employ tools used by epidemiologists studying diseases of humans. As results of the study are gathered, beekeepers will be able to design their own beekeeping program following what works and what doesn’t. Beekeepers will continue to select from their strongest colonies, and, hopefully, over time surviving bees will become resistant to certain pests and pathogens. As an example, honey bee resistance to tracheal mites seems to be spreading in recent years. In today’s photo spring wildflowers abound: bull nettle, buttercups, spring asters, and common vetch.--Richard