Today, the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) announced the results of its latest annual winter survival survey which show that the number of honey bee colonies lost over the winter was more than double that of the previous year, with all regions in England showing increased losses.
The overwinter survival of honey bee colonies is a composite measure of their fitness and the effect of various factors such as colony nutrition and the skill and experience of the beekeeper.
On average 33.8 colonies in every 100 were lost compared with 16.2 in the winter of 2011-2012. The losses principally reflect the impact of the continual poor and changeable weather during 2012 continuing into 2013 and exacerbated by the late arrival of spring. It is feared that the situation may have worsened since the survey closed at the end of March given the ongoing poor weather and the late arrival of spring.
The poor summer of 2012 meant that honey bees were regularly prevented from gathering pollen and foraging and when they could, there was a general scarcity of pollen and nectar throughout the season. Virgin queens were unable to mate properly leading them to become drone laying queens and causing those colonies affected to die-out.
Winter Losses of Honey Bee Colonies in England Over Last Six Years
Importance of Winter Losses of Honey Bees
The honey bee is the only bee to maintain a colony throughout the winter reducing its colony size in autumn and relying on its stores of honey to last it through the winter months when it is too cold for foraging or there is no forage available. In winter, worker bees can live for up to five or six months. In the summer, worker bees only live for around six weeks. Honey bee queens live for three to four years but cannot survive without worker bees. In other species of bees or wasps only the queen survives by hibernating through the winter months.
Impact of Bad Weather on Honey Bee Colonies
- Inability of the bees to forage during the year resulting in poorly developed colonies
- Scarcity of pollen and nectar throughout the season; even if in flower, nectar output is temperature dependent
- Poor weather at the time of mating of the new virgin queens resulting in inadequately mated queens leading to drone laying queens and colonies which can ultimately die out
- Inadequate nutrition, especially pollen during the late summer when the specialized bees which take the colony through the winter are born
- Beekeepers have reported significant incidence of isolation starvation, which happens when the bees lose contact with their food reserves during the winter. Bees cluster closely together to maintain the hive temperature and consume the stores of honey closest to them. Having exhausted stores close to them they take advantage of any warmer weather to move within the hive to fresh stores. If the weather is too cold for them to move or if the cluster moves and re-groups having moved in the wrong direction, the colony may starve. Very often these colonies are found to have plenty of stores.
Honey bee colonies which are in a poor nutritional state become more vulnerable to disease and other stress factors.
Survey Results by Region
David Aston, BBKA chairman explains, “Those honey bee colonies which have survived the winter and are now prospering have done so in the main due to the careful nurturing through the winter by beekeepers who have spent much time and effort feeding and carrying out frequent checks on hives, incurring significant additional expense meeting the need to continually feed their bees.
“The training and education of beekeepers to be able to adapt their beekeeping practices to help their honey bees cope with this period of changing weather patterns is a high priority for all beekeeping associations.”
By Paul Towers
Last week, the term “bee-washing” emerged in public conversation. It doesn’t refer to some new bee cleaning service, but to the insidious efforts of Monsanto and other pesticide corporations to discredit science about the impacts of pesticides on bees—especially neonicotinoids—by creating public relations tours, new research centers and new marketing strategies.
This week, pesticide makers are showcasing these tactics during National Pollinator Week with offers of free seed packets to people who take their poorly named “pollinator pledge.” The “bee-washing” term has gained traction as scientists and groups like Pesticide Action Network (PAN) continue to cut through the misinformation and point to the emerging body of science that points to pesticides as a critical factor in bee declines.
Monsanto hosted their first so-called Honey Bee Health Summit last week, a gathering at the company’s headquarters in Missouri. Without question, some truly smart, dedicated scientists attended Monsanto’s bee summit and are participating in these efforts.
And a similarly committed group of beekeepers who care about bees, beekeeping and our food system have also participated. What’s increasingly clear, though, is that the credibility of these individuals is being used to shield the agenda of a handful of pesticide corporations and their bee-harming insecticide products. The corporate public relation gymnastics on display are truly impressive.
Unfortunately, Monsanto is not alone in its efforts. Just this spring, Bayer sponsored a tour of its “specially-wrapped beehicle” and hosted a talk at Ohio State University in March, over loud objections from local beekeepers.
Industry has largely set its sights on one issue to blame for bee declines. While lack of sufficient forage and diseases are a challenge to bee health and beekeeping, challenges exacerbated by the weakening effect of pesticides on bees, the pesticide industry has focused a large proportion of its attention on the varroa mite. And it’s an easy distraction that places the burden of unprecedented bee losses on beekeepers—while subverting any blame for the widespread pesticide products.
Unfortunately for Monsanto & Co, and as most beekeepers and academics will say, the varroa mite has been around a long time, predating dramatic bee declines in the U.S. that started in 2006. While mites no doubt affect bee colonies, they are unlikely the primary driver of population declines.
There is a correlation, however, between the introduction of neonicotinoid pesticides (or neonics) on the market and bee die-offs. Independent studies show—and beekeepers corroborate from hands-on experience—that these pesticides weaken bees’ immune systems, likely damaging their resistance to common challenges like the varroa mite.
Neonics are one of the largest growth sectors for the pesticide industry. And industry has a vested interest in keeping the neonic market growing. But we know that spin efforts to refocus attention on varroa mites were already attempted in Europe, and the approach has been largely unsuccessful. The European Union just put continent-wide restrictions on the use of neonics in place.
Pesticide corporations don’t show any sign of letting up. If this spring and summer are any indication, then the “bee-washing” campaign will continue. Beekeepers will remain the victims of this targeted public relations campaign.
And the costs of are very real. Earlier this month, Jim Doan—a third generation commercial beekeeper from upstate New York—literally sold his farm due to bee losses. For years, he produced over half a million pounds of honey annually and eventually grew his business to 5,300 hives. But when neonicotinoid pesticides started being commonly used in the U.S., around 2006, Jim’s bees started dying.
He’s experienced serious losses to bees he brought to citrus groves in Florida and the cornfields of New York. And now, he only has 300 hives left. In an email he circulated last week, he wrote: “I am done. I cannot continue. Sold my farm 2 weeks ago, I am giving up, there is no hope here.”
Bees are continuing to die off at unprecedented rates and beekeepers are going out of business. There is clearly something amiss—and the pesticide industry would have us believe that their products play no part in this alarming trend. PAN, beekeepers and our partners will continue to shine a light on corporate “bee-washing” and spin efforts to subdue or obfuscate the growing body of science pointing to this clear message: Pesticides are playing a key role in bee deaths.
Bees have been dying off in droves around the world since the mid-1990s. First in France, then in the U.S. and elsewhere, colonies have been mysteriously collapsing with adult bees disappearing, seemingly abandoning their hives. In 2006, about two years after this phenomenon hit the U.S., it was named “Colony Collapse Disorder,” or CCD. Each year since commercial beekeepers have reported annual losses of 29% – 36%. Such losses are unprecedented, and more than double what is considered normal.
While wild pollinators like bats and bumble bees are also facing catastrophic declines, managed honey bees are the most economically important pollinators in the world. According to a recent U.N. report, of the 100 crops that provide 90% of the world’s food, over 70 are pollinated by bees. In the U.S. alone, honey bees’ economic contribution is valued at over $15 billion.
What the bees are telling us
U.S. commercial beekeepers report that their industry is on the verge of collapse, and farmers who rely on pollination services are increasingly concerned. It’s unlikely that such a collapse will directly result in a food security crisis, but crop yields would decline signficantly, and more acres of land would need to be put into production to meet demand. With most fruits, many vegetables, almonds, alfalfa and many other crops all dependent upon bees for pollination, the variety and nutritional value of our food system is threatened.
In addition to their agricultural value as pollinators, honey bees are a keystone, indicator species. Their decline points to (and will likely accelerate) broader environmental degradation in a kind of ripple effect. Pollinator population declines are thus a disproportionately important piece of the current collapse in biodiversity that seven in ten biologists believe poses an even greater threat to humanity than the global warming which contributes to it. Little-known fact: we are today living through a sixth mass extinction. During the last one, dinosaurs went extinct.
As indicator species, honey bees are sounding an alarm that we ignore at our peril. Among their lessons: industrial agriculture has gone off the rails, kicking the pesticide treadmill into high gear with a new class of dangerous systemic pesticides while regulators were asleep at the switch.
- Very persistent in soil & water soluble.
- Systemic pesticides applied at the root (as seed coating or drench) & then taken up through the plant’s vascular system to be expressed in pollen, nectar & guttation droplets (like dew) from which bees then forage & drink.
- Systemics on food cannot be washed off.
- Nicotine-like, neurotoxic insecticides that bind to nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in insects’ brains.
- Bees have a particular genetic vulnerability to these & other pesticides because they have more of these receptors, as well as more learning & memory genes, & fewer genes for detoxification.
- Widely used on more than 140 crop varieties, as well as on termites, flea treatments, lawns & gardens.
- Fastest-growing class of synthetic pesticides in history. Imidacloprid is Bayer Crop Science’s top-selling product.
What we know
Much has been made over the “mystery” surrounding CCD, but in recent years two points of consensus have emerged:
- Multiple, interacting causes are in play – key suspects include pathogens, habitat loss and pesticides; and
- Immune system damage is a critical factor that may be at the root of the disorder.
Meanwhile, a new class of systemic, neurotoxic pesticides that are known to be particularly toxic to honey bees has rapidly taken over the global insecticide market since their introduction in the 1990s: neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids (like imidacloprid and its successor product clothianidin) are used as seed treatments in hundreds of crops from corn to almonds, as well as in lawn care and flea products. These products persist for years in the soil, and, as systemics, permeate the plants to which they are applied to be expressed as pollen, nectar and guttation droplets (like pesticide dew).
Honey bee exposure to this class of pesticides is, in other words, nearly pervasive – and in the U.S. the rate of seed treatment with these insecticides increased five-fold around the same time CCD hit the U.S.
Recent science shows that extremely low dose exposures to neonicotinoids undermine immunity – rendering honey bees more susceptible to pathogens. And beekeepers in the U.S. and Europe have, for years, been asking governments to pull or restrict this class of pesticides because they believe them to be harming hive health.
Decisive action is overdue
Governments in Italy, Germany, France and elsewhere have already taken action against neonicotinoids to protect their pollinators. And beekeepers there are reporting recovery. Yet regulators in the U.S. remain paralyzed, apparently captive to industry-funded science and a regulatory framework that finds chemicals innocent until proven guilty.
It seems that only massive public outcry will compel U.S. policymakers to take action on a timeframe that is meaningful for bees and beekeepers. With one in every three bites of food dependent on honey bees for pollination, the time for decisive action is now.
 Spivak M, Mader E, Vaughan M, et al., The plight of the bees, Environmental Science and Technology (45) 34-38, 2011.