Fourth Winter Bee Die-Off Threatens Crops, Raises Prices

The world may be on the brink of biological disaster after news that a third of US bee colonies did not survive the winter

May 2, 2010
By Rick Wills
Pittsburg Tribune Review

A national survey released yesterday revealed one-third of commercial beekeepers' colonies died over the winter, the fourth consecutive year with similar losses.

Researchers warn the rate of bee deaths is becoming unsustainable, and continued losses could impact the cost and availability of food.

Image: Map of states reporting CCD – Colony Collapse Disorder )Bee Alert Technology)

"These numbers are all indicators that a crisis is coming," said Dennis van Engelsdorp of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. "It will reach a perfect storm the way the credit crisis did."

Honeybees, a species from Europe, became the pollinators of choice in American agriculture because they are easy to manage and were plentiful. A single colony can contain 20,000 workers, while bumblebee colonies might have only 200.

Nearly 34 percent of the country's managed honeybee colonies were lost last winter, according to the survey of 4,331 beekeepers conducted by the Apiary Inspectors of America and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Honey Bee Lab in Beltsville, Md.

That compares to losses of 29 percent in 2008-09, 35.8 percent in 2007-08 and 31.8 percent in 2006-07.

In the past year, Dave Hackenberg of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania's largest beekeeper, lost 62 percent of his colonies.

"The problem's not going away. The losses will continue into the future," said Hackenberg.

Honeybees pollinate staples such as nuts, fruits and vegetables, adding $15 billion each year to agricultural output in the United States, according to the Agriculture Department.

Agriculture is Pennsylvania's No. 1 industry; the state has nearly 8 million acres of farmland. Crops include grains such as wheat, oats, rye and barley, as well as potatoes, apples, cherries, peaches and grapes.

Diminished numbers of bees could lead to more expensive food and less availability of some flowering crops, van Engelsdorp said.

"We would have to go to less-intensive agriculture, decreased production of apples, almonds, squash and many other things. You would not have the acres and acres of apples in Adams County without pollination," van Engelsdorp said.

Crops in need of pollination also could be at risk if cash-strapped migratory beekeepers leave the business, as some have suggested.

The stress on bees from shipping hives long distances to pollinate crops is one suspected contributor to colony collapse disorder, a syndrome identified three years ago that is characterized by the death of an entire colony. Bees also are under great threat from a variety of mites and viruses and from poor nutrition.

Researchers, environmental groups and beekeepers increasingly are scrutinizing pesticides as a reason for the honeybee die-offs. Italy, France, Germany and Slovenia restrict the use of some pesticides, and watchdog groups have asked the Environmental Protection Agency to do the same.

During recent almond pollination in California, demand for bees dramatically outstripped availability.

"There was a scramble for bees at the end of almond pollination," said Joe Traynor, a bee broker in that state's San Joaquin Valley, where almond growers use more than 1 million bee colonies each February to pollinate vast crops.

Bee colonies a decade ago rented for $60 and cost as much as $170 this February in California.

"The growers insisted they would not pay more than $100 per colony. Many paid a lot more than that," said Hackenberg.