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U.S. beekeepers face 40% loss in managed colonies

Small-scale beekeepers typically have higher winter losses than their commercial counterparts.

May 25, 2018

3 Min Read
U.S. beekeepers face 40% loss in managed colonies
Auburn University entomology research technician Emily Muehlenfeld, inspects a honeybee colony at the AU Bee Lab.Auburn University

Beekeepers in the U.S. may have lost 40% of their managed honeybee colonies between April 1, 2017, and March 31, 2018, an increase of almost 7% from the previous year’s total loss rate, according to results of an annual nationwide survey announced by Auburn University.

Greater colony mortality during the 2017-18 winter months pushed the overall loss rate higher, with survey respondents reporting a 30.7% rate of loss from October to April. That is up significantly from the record low of 21.1% in 2016-17 and is 2.8% higher than the 10-year average winter loss rate, Auburn said.

“Winter is a critical period for honeybee colonies, as production of new bees slows or stops altogether,” said Geoffrey Williams, Auburn University assistant professor of insect pollination and apiculture and coordinator of the 2017-18 colony loss survey, in cooperation with University of Maryland researchers. “There also can be a lack of food.”

Small-scale beekeepers typically have higher winter losses than their commercial counterparts, Williams said, which was the case in 2017-18, with backyard beekeepers losing 46.3% of their colonies over the six-month period compared to a loss rate of 38.0% for sideline producers and 26.4% for commercial beekeepers.

The survey also tracked summer-season colony mortality in 2017-18 and found that beekeepers lost 17.9% of their managed colonies, on par with the 2016-17 loss rate, Auburn said.

Especially interesting in this year’s survey results was the rate of colony loss that beekeepers deemed acceptable. The 2017-18 data set the acceptable loss rate at 20.6%, up from 18.7% in 2016-17 and the highest rate since the survey began in 2006-07, Auburn noted.

“We don’t have a solid explanation of why that acceptable rate continues to climb, but it could be that beekeepers are being realistic about potentially higher losses,” Williams said. “For them, it could be the new norm.”

As of May 14, some 4,794 beekeepers who collectively manage 175,923 colonies, or 6.6% of the nation’s 2.67 million managed honeybee colonies, had responded to the survey, representing all 50 states, the District of Columbia and U.S. territories. The federally funded survey, conducted by the nonprofit Bee Informed Partnership, is open to every beekeeper in the country, including backyard, sideline and commercial producers, defined as those managing 50 or fewer colonies, 51-500 colonies and 501-plus colonies, respectively.

While several parasites, pests and diseases can contribute to colony mortality, the number-one enemy of honeybees and beekeepers in the U.S. and around the globe is the varroa mite, Auburn noted. The external parasite is highly reproductive and can spread easily from one colony to the next, vectoring viruses as it feeds on adult and immature bees.

This was the 12th annual national winter colony loss survey, and the eighth survey to include yearly and summer loss rates as well.

Results of the 2017-18 survey and all past surveys can be found at beeinformed.org. State-by-state colony loss data from the latest survey will be available in the coming weeks.

The Bee Informed Partnership plans to publish a 10-year analysis of survey results from 2007-08 to 2016-17 later this year.

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