Honeybee deaths in the U.S. fell over the past year, according to a government report that said losses remained higher than beekeepers consider acceptable to remain in business.
Beekeepers reported a loss of 23.2 percent of their managed colonies during the October to April winter season, down from 30.5 percent from the same period a year earlier, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said today. The agency, which conducts the annual survey, declined to offer a theory for the year-over- year decline.
"Yearly fluctuations in the rate of losses like these only demonstrate how complicated the whole issue of honeybee heath has become," Jeff Pettis, leader of the USDA bee research center in Beltsville, Maryland, said in a statement. "Viruses and other pathogens, parasites like varroa mites, problems of nutrition from lack of diversity in pollen sources, and even sublethal effects of pesticides" are harming colonies.
Bees pollinate plants from apricots to zucchini and help increase crop values by $15 billion each year, according to the USDA. Lawmakers have sought more aid to pollinators to stem the losses, while environmental groups urge greater regulation of pesticides made by Bayer AG, Syngenta AG and Dow Chemical Co.
Companies from Hershey Co., maker of Almond Joy candy bars, to Burt’s Bees lip-balm producer Clorox Co., rely on crops pollinated by bees. More than half the nation’s commercial bees are needed to pollinate one crop: the $4.8 billion annual harvest of almonds, the country’s most lucrative nut.
Bee deaths reached alarming levels about 2006, when scientists identified Colony Collapse Disorder, a syndrome of unknown cause marked by disoriented bees failing to find their way back to their hives and dying. Beekeepers reported losing roughly a third of their colonies -- up from 15 percent in previous years.
That’s sparked calls for greater protection for bees, ranging from habitat preservation to a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, a class of chemicals that the European Union banned in December for two years after studies showed a link to colony collapse.
Manufacturers say getting rid of the products would force farmers and gardeners to use older products that cause greater environmental damage without improving conditions for bees.
Tim Tucker, a beekeeper in Niotaze, Kansas, and president of the American Beekeeping Federation, said the greatest health threat to bees comes from pesticides, followed by mites and loss of habitat. Still, his organization hasn’t supported a chemical ban, saying they’d prefer reduced use and more study.
"The neonics, we’re just now after 20 years finding out most of the ramifications and implications of their use. It’s going to be another 5 to 10 years before we fully understand the effects," he said.
Losses reported in the voluntary survey of about 7,200 beekeepers are also below the average 29.6 percent in the past eight years, when Colony Collapse Disorder began to be widely reported. Even with the improvement, the rate remains above the 18.9 percent on average that beekeepers said is acceptable for their economic sustainability, the USDA said.