Honey beehive losses are continuing at an alarming rate nationwide and locally, but the situation is far from hopeless.
According to a report released in June by the nonprofit Bee Informed Partnership, 37.7% of honey bee colonies managed by U.S. beekeepers who responded to a survey were lost this winter (Oct. 1, 2018, to April 1, 2019).
This was 8.9 percentage points higher than the annual survey’s 13-year average winter colony loss rate of 28.8% and was the highest loss percentage for a single winter so far. In the prior year, 30.7% of survey respondents’ hives didn’t make it through the winter.
For an entire year, (April 1, 2018, to April 1, 2019), respondents lost about 40.7% of their hives. It was 40.1% the prior year.
The latest results are based on responses of 4,696 U.S. beekeepers managing 319,787 honey beehives as of October 2018. These colonies represent about 11.9% of about 2.69 million managed hives nationwide.
It’s hard to get a good handle on losses in Wilkes alone due to the lack of a local survey or reporting system, but Beekeepers of Wilkes President Keith Church of the Mount Pleasant community estimated that 35% of the honey beehives in Wilkes didn’t make it through this past winter. Church said the actual number of colonies lost decreased, but only because beekeepers started the winter with fewer hives.
Master Beekeeper “B” Townes of the Boomer community said honey bees and other pollinators face complex and numerous challenges, but “enemy number one is varroa mites,” tiny Asian parasites that feed on adult honey bees but reproduce on and mostly feed on honey bee larvae and pupae. They transmit viruses to honey bees that increase mortality, especially in the winter.
Townes said the best solution could be for beekeepers worldwide to not treat hives for mites and let honey bees evolve to the point where they aren’t vulnerable to mites.
He said this isn’t likely to gain acceptance, so it’s important to strictly monitor hives for mites, eliminate weak colonies and “break the brood cycle” by letting hives go queenless for brief periods since mites reproduce on bee larvae and pupae. This can be done when splitting hives.
If queens are obtained from an outside source, Townes recommended that they be from strong hives no more than 100 miles away to help establish local honey bee populations with healthy traits.
Lastly, beekeepers should rotate chemical mite control products to discourage mites from developing resistance.
Church said hive loss often results from improper application of mite control products, especially waiting too long this time of year to use them. Honey bees in the hive now will raise the bees that need to make it through the winter for the hive to survive, so they should be treated for mites as soon as possible after honey supers are removed.
There are other factors, but many sources identify varroa mites, pesticides and poor nutrition as chief causes of honey bee losses. Pesticides and poor nutrition also adversely impact the many species of wild pollinators, and new research indicates honey bees are spreading a virus originating with varroa mites to bumble bees.
If you must use pesticides, do so late in the evening when pollinators are less active. Avoid spraying directly on blooms and use pesticides in forms other than spray if possible. There is particular concern about neonicotinoid pesticides, so be careful about which pesticides you use and use them as sparingly as possible.
Poor nutrition is partly the result of land clearing, including mowing or spraying field and lawn borders. Resist mowing or spraying weeds as much as possible because many are important to pollinators.
Identify and remove invasive plant species that out-compete native plants that are beneficial to pollinators.
Promote survival of honey bees and wild pollinators by planting flowering plants that are good nectar and pollen sources, plus attractive to the eye. These include all types of mint, various herbs, sunflowers, asters and the list goes on.
Don’t be discouraged from giving beekeeping a try because people in all sorts of life situations do it successfully.
However, a willingness to invest time on learning is essential. Start with reading about it and consider taking a beginner beekeeping class.