Last year was an extremely challenging for our managed honey bee colonies here in Maryland. According to the Bee Informed Partnership (BIP), 2016 is the year that losses exceeded 56%, and over a 3 year average, Maryland beekeepers have lost 54% of their total colonies. Maryland has approximately 14,000+ registered honey bee colonies according to Maryland State Agricultural statistics. The average replacement costs per colony is $150, replacement colonies range from $100/package to $200/nuc. This means that beekeepers in Maryland spend over $1.13 million every year to replace approximately 7,600 lost registered honey bee colonies.
This does not include lost revenue, lost labor, or losses in potential business growth that would otherwise be possible by splitting healthy colonies. There are multiple complex reasons for these losses including, but not limited to, the following:
Forage is the basis of a healthy colony’s immune system. Yet, most areas of the state saw very low levels of natural forage and rainfall this year, adversely affecting the colonies’ immunity. Thus, colonies with compromised immune systems succumb to the ravages of mites, viruses, and bacterial infections. To add to this, many beekeepers have seen an increase in pesticide use in the form of lawn and yard spraying, compounded by municipal and private responses to Zika virus in the form of broad spectrum mosquito spraying. Moreover, summer queen failures have become a chronic problem in Maryland, even including queen failures that occur within the first summer after a colony is established, which, historically, would be considered a rarity. Furthermore, the translocation of honey bee colonies is highly problematic as colonies are unable to easily or fully integrate into the environment into which they have been transported.
If managed honey bee losses are this high, how do we think that wild native bee populations are faring? Managed populations are the only populations to which beekeepers have regular access. If managed honey bees are facing the difficulties mentioned above, then it is reasonable to assume that wild native bee populations are suffering in the same ways.
Dr. David Goulson, Elizabeth Nicholls, Cristina Botías, and Ellen L. Rotheray published their research findings in their article, Bee Declines Driven by Combined Stress from Parasites, Pesticides, and Lack of Flowers, suggesting several possible ways to mitigate managed honey bee colony losses:
Bees are subject to numerous pressures in the modern world. The abundance and diversity of flowers has declined; bees are chronically exposed to cocktails of agrochemicals, and they are simultaneously exposed to novel parasites accidentally spread by humans. Climate change is likely to exacerbate these problems in the future. Stressors do not act in isolation; for example, pesticide exposure can impair both detoxification mechanisms and immune responses, rendering bees more susceptible to parasites. It seems certain that chronic exposure to multiple interacting stressors is driving honey bee colony losses and declines of wild pollinators, but such interactions are not addressed by current regulatory procedures, and studying these interactions experimentally poses a major challenge. In the meantime, taking steps to reduce stress on bees would seem prudent; incorporating flower-rich habitat into farmland, reducing pesticide use through adopting more sustainable farming methods, and enforcing effective quarantine measures on bee movements are all practical measures that should be adopted. Effective monitoring of wild pollinator populations is urgently needed to inform management strategies into the future.
Beekeepers here in Maryland have very tough decisions to make. Our current track record for managed honey bee losses is abysmal, in fact the entire Mid-Atlantic region is suffering from catastrophic honey bee losses in managed colonies. Do we make much needed corrections to our management of our colonies or pursue the “same ol’ same ol’” and continue to pay for replacement colonies, which in many cases only exacerbates the situation?
We can make things better for pollinators and give them the best possible chance for survival, but in order to do that, we must all act together to see those changes come to fruition.