Honey Bee Survival Improving

CLAIM: Regional losses of honeybees in Europe and the United States continue unabated.

REALITY: Surveys in 2014 showed improved survival rates, which may indicate that better hive management is reducing losses.

“Honeybees have been disappearing at an alarming rate since 2005 … if the bees die, the human race will not be far behind,” laments a 2015 article in the online news site called Inquisitr. In reality, hives kept for pollination services in the United States and Europe have shown better survival rates in recent years, much closer to what beekeepers consider normal. This reality indicates that the high losses in recent years, do not necessarily represent an inevitable long-term trend.

In the United States, a survey on honeybee health conducted by Bee Informed shows that bees did much better during the winter of 2013-2014 than in prior years. The annual losses reported after the winter of 2013-2014 came to 23.2 percent, while the past eight year average was 29.6 percent, with a high loss rate of 36 percent in 2007-2008, and a low of 21.9 percent in 2011-2012. While challenges remain, efforts to improve hive health may have made the difference and provide a roadmap for future efforts.

No one can point to a single reason for improved hive survival, but as bee expert Dennis vanEngelsdorp explains, improved beekeeping practices may be limiting the impact of the Varroa mite. “What is clear from all of our efforts is that Varroa is a persistent and often unexpected problem,” he said. “Even beekeepers who do treat for mites often don’t treat frequently enough or at the right time. If all beekeepers were to aggressively control mites, we would have many fewer losses.”

CCD has not proven as much of a problem in Canada, but there are some isolated problems there as well. In 2014, beekeepers reported unusually high losses in Toronto, which experienced losses of 58 percent. But excluding Toronto, which appears to be a very unusual outlier, Canadian beekeepers report that winter mortality was just 19.2 percent that year. The report notes: “It is notable that the winter losses has been reduced by 25 per cent, going from as high as 35% from 2007-2008 down to on average 20 percent since 2009/10.”

Similarly, a 2014 European Union study indicates that honeybees are doing better in Europe than it originally appeared. The study covered 80 percent of all honeybee hives in Europe. According to the survey, member states that suffered hive losses of 10 percent or less housed 47 percent of the hives in this study. European states that experienced between 10 to 15 percent losses were home to 27 percent of the hives. In other words, nations that were home to nearly 75 percent of the hives experienced losses below 15 percent, which is a reasonably good honeybee hive survival rate for a large portion of the hives in Europe. In fact, the highest losses (those above 20 percent) occurred in nations that housed just 5 percent of the hives. “It’s the first major study of pests and diseases that affect honeybees. A lot of it seems very encouraging,” said Tom Breeze, Research Fellow in the School of Agriculture, Policy and Development at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom.

Another study conducted by an international group called COLOSS (Prevention of Honey Bee COlony LOSSes), collected and analyzed survey data from beekeepers in 19 European nations as well as Israel and Algeria. With more than 17,000 respondents managing more than 375,000 hives, this comprehensive study reported some very good preliminary results:

A preliminary analysis of the data show that the mortality rate over the 2013 – 14 winter varied between countries, ranging from 6% in Norway to 14 % in Portugal, and there were also marked regional differences within most countries. The overall proportion of colonies lost was 9 %, the lowest since the international working group started collecting data in 2007.

Another study by the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) showed great improvements in the United Kingdom during the winter of 2013-3014, with a total loss reported of 9.6 percent. Although BBKA representatives still consider a 9.6 loss too high, this level is far lower than the peak loss of 33 percent in 2012-2013. Prior years have shown losses ranging from a high of 30 percent in 2007-2008. In other years, the losses were much lower with a high of nearly 19 percent in 2008-2009 and a low of less than 14 percent in 2010-2011. The BBKA identifies the Varroa mite and limited foraging plants available to bees as major challenges in the UK, which it is addressing through education on hive management and via a National Pollinator Program that encourages planting of valuable flowers for honeybee foraging.

Challenges remain and no one knows for sure what next year or the following will bring in terms of hive losses. But with any luck, continued effort and research on causes and improvements to hive management will improve hive survival.


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