USDA released a positive report on honey bee colonies this past spring. The number of commercial U.S. honey bee colonies was 2.89 million as of April 1—3% more colonies than during the same time in 2016. The total number of honey bee colonies lost was also lower in 2017. The number of colonies lost from April through June 2017 was 226,000 colonies, or 8%, compared with 330,000 colonies lost, or 12%, in 2016.
These are positive signs honey bee numbers are stabilizing, but the much-needed pollinators aren’t out of the woods yet.
“It is hard to look at the colony numbers and get a clear snapshot on overall bee health; what the numbers and charts don’t show is how much harder the beekeepers are working to keep those bees alive,” says Jeff Harris, Mississippi State University Extension research apiculturist and honey bee expert.
USDA research shows varroa mites were the top stressor for operations in 2017, though their impact on the colonies is down 11% this year compared with April through June 2016. While mites might be causing less harm than in the past, honey bee colonies will always face threats from this pest and numerous other pressures.
“Bee health has been devastated for the last 30 years not only because the varroa mite was introduced, but because other diseases and pests were introduced, including the tracheal mite, Nosema ceranae (a fungal disease) and the small hive beetle. Beekeepers must continually manage these diseases and pests to keep bees healthy,” Harris says.
To address disease and pest challenges, Bayer Crop Science and other agricultural companies are conducting research on bee health and working to create technologies that can help beekeepers on a daily basis.
“We are making steady progress in our collective efforts to improve honey bee health; however, there remains much work to do to achieve a truly sustainable bee industry,” says Dick Rogers, Bayer North American Bee Care Program, principal scientist and beekeeper. “Beekeeping has never been easy, but the introduction of [the varroa mite] has forever changed the rules of the game, forcing beekeepers to cope with this formidable foe or face the loss of their livelihood altogether,” he says.
To combat these issues Bayer has created a number of platforms to aid in the research of new products, as well as set a goal to help feed bees by planting forages in all 50 states.
It is also important to understand the relationship between farmers and beekeepers. Honey bees are a critical component to agricultural production through their pollination activities. Research by Nick Calderone at Cornell University documented that managed honey bees hired by U.S. crop producers to pollinate crops contributed more than $19 billion to U.S. agriculture in 2010.
When bees are brought into agricultural environments, they risk exposure to pesticides that can kill or otherwise harm them. Of course, Harris adds, farmers need these pesticides to protect their crops from insects or weeds that threaten them.
“Much effort has been aimed at improving how farmers and beekeepers work together to best protect honey bees without dramatically hurting farmers who also need to make a living. The dialogue between beekeepers and farmers must continue indefinitely if we are to get the best protection for bees while also securing the best production from the agricultural crops that need their pollination,” Harris says.