Nationwide Survey Shows Dramatic Improvement in Honeybee Health

During the last week, there has been a great deal of attention to a study claiming pesticides are responsible for an increase in honeybee hive death. Known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), beekeepers and scientists have been working to find out what is to blame for the trend.

What has been ignored, however, is recent good news about CCD. A recent study by Bee Informed, a nationwide survey of beekeepers, the percentage of hives that died over winter fell from 30.5 percent in 2012-13 to 23.2 percent last winter, a 25 percent reduction in hive mortality.

The survey is extremely robust, covering an estimated 20 percent of all hives in the country.

This undermines the claim that pesticides are to blame for CCD. Unless pesticide use dramatically declined last year, which I am certain it didn’t, it is hard to cite pesticide use as the cause of the reduction in the first place. The most likely explanation for the improvement is that beekeepers are managing other risks, like varroa mites, that contribute to CCD. Such a significant decline in winter mortality indicates beekeepers are effectively changing their management techniques in response to losing hives.

It also shows how hyperbole about honeybees is harming thoughtful discussion about the causes of CCD. The Discover Magazine blog about the pesticide study concludes with this ominous paragraph:

CCD threatens not only bees but entire economies and the world food supply. Honeybees pollinate about a third of crops worldwide and, according to some estimates, as much as 80 percent of U.S. crops.

This is pure hyperbole. Total honeybee populations in the United States are actually increasing. A reduction in hive mortality will help this trend. Beekeepers are responding to CCD by increasing breeding. For example, one of my two hives died over the winter, but I will have four hives this year because I am buying newly bred bees and splitting one of my hives into two. Others are doing the same, which is actually increasing the number of pollinators.

Additionally, noting that farmers rely on honeybees is evidence that farmers are careful about using pesticides. Many who blame pesticides for CCD claim farmers are glibly using pesticides that harm the very honeybees they rely on for pollination. The supposed villains of the pesticide narrative, carless farmers, are the ones with the most to lose.

There will, undoubtedly, be calls for politicians to do “something” about CCD. This national study, however, shows that beekeepers are better at finding effective techniques to keep their hives alive and their honeybees pollinating our crops and flowers. Not to mention making honey.

Comments (2)

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  1. Colette McLean says:

    The survey unfortunately also shows an increase in summer colony losses. (between April 1 2012 and Oct 1 2012) were 25.3%. Loss estimate for the 12-month period (between April 1, 2012 and March 30, 2013) was 45.2% which would indicate more of a pesticide problem since pesticides are not being used in the winter. There is no data from this site to indicate that but in Ontario the number of bee losses went up in both 2012 and 2013 and is suspected to be the result of using talc, or graphite in air seeding equipment which collects the seed treatment (neonics) and get’s blown out into the air and possibly contaminating food sources for bees foraging near these field http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/cps-spc/pubs/pest/_fact-fiche/bee_mortality-mortalite_abeille-eng.php I’m glad to see that the overwinter kill of bees is down, but that is not the whole story and as a farmer, I’m very concerned about my practises that could be harming the environment. Note that all pollinators (bees, butterflies, moths, etc) represent 30% of our food production.

    • Todd Myers says:

      You are using old numbers are from 2012-13. The 2013-14 numbers are better in both summer and winter. The summer number for 2013 is a loss of 20%, lower than the 25.3% from 2012. The winter loss for 2013/14 is 23.2%, lower than the 2012/13 rate of 30.5%

      Ultimately, the total loss in 2012/13 was 45.2% but declined to 34.2% in 2013/14 – a significant decline.

      Of course I am being careful to limit risks to my bees, and reducing the threat from pesticides is one thing. I don’t, however, subscribe to the blame pesticides approach, especially given these new numbers.

      The report can be found at beeinformed.org.

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