Across the country, winter 2018-19 proved difficult for honeybees and beekeepers.
Beekeepers across the U.S. saw 37.7% winter loss of their honeybee colonies, according to preliminary results of the latest annual nationwide survey of beekeepers conducted by the University of Maryland-led nonprofit Bee Informed Partnership.
Douglas Sjostrom of Honey Hill Apiary in Maiden Rock said he lost between 40 and 45 % of his colonies last winter. Sjostrom has about 200 hives scattered around Pierce County with Honey Hill Apiary.
“Each of the last several winters, losses have been high,” Sjostrom said. “It takes all of the profits, just replacing lost bees.”
Final results of the survey, including a state-by-state breakdown, will be released at a later date, but 156 Wisconsin beekeepers representing 18,597 colonies reported a winter loss of 21 % in winter 2017-18.
Minnesota beekeepers lost 44% of their colonies that winter, when nationwide losses came in at just more than 30%.
The winter losses in 2018-19 were the highest reported since the survey began 13 years ago and 8.9 percentage points higher than the survey average.
“These results are very concerning, as high winter losses hit an industry already suffering from a decade of high winter losses,” Dennis vanEngelsdorp, associate professor of entomology at the University of Maryland and president for the Bee Informed Partnership, said in a news release.
Honeybees pollinate $15 billion worth of food crops in the U.S. each year. Insect pollination is responsible for a third of all the foods we eat with 80 percent of those foods dependent on honeybees.
According to the survey, which has been conducted since 2006, beekeepers lost 40.7 percent of their honeybee colonies from April 2018 to April 2019, numbers that represent a slight increase over the annual average of 38.7 percent.
Since beekeepers began noticing dramatic losses in their colonies, state and federal agricultural agencies, university researchers, and the beekeeping industry have been working together to understand the cause and develop best management practices to reduce losses.
“Just looking at the overall picture and the 10-year trends, it’s disconcerting that we’re still seeing elevated losses after over a decade of survey and quite intense work to try to understand and reduce colony loss,” said Geoffrey Williams, assistant professor of entomology at Auburn University and co-author of the survey. “We don’t seem to be making particularly great progress to reduce overall losses.”
The survey asks commercial and backyard beekeeping operations to track the survival rates of their honeybee colonies. Nearly 4,700 beekeepers managing 319,787 colonies from all 50 states and the District of Columbia responded to this year’s survey, representing about 12 percent of the nation’s estimated 2.69 million managed colonies, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Multiple factors are likely responsible for persistently high annual loss rates and this year’s jump in winter losses, the Bee Informed Partnership team said in a news release. A multi-pronged approach — research, extension services and education, and best management practices — is needed to combat the problem, the team said.
“Changes in farming practices have really hurt us a lot,” Sjostrom said. “There’s just not the nutrition out there for the bees. It’s all row crops and no pastures and flowers. They’re not getting the nutrition they need.”
Beekeepers in northern states bring in replacement bees from southern states, where the bees are active all year. But, Sjostrom said, the replacement bees are smaller and weaker and can take a year to get established. That can cut into the year’s honey production, which is ramping up in July.
“Right now, our bees are healthy,” Sjostrom said. “But a lot will depend in the next few weeks what Mother Nature throws our way.”