New USDA Study Finds Bee Populations Not Dropping as Steeply, Names Possible Causes

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We've been hearing a lot about dwindling bee populations for quite some time already.

While the thought of a world without apis' might soothe horrifying childhood memories of stings, it would be an utter catastrophe for many of the foods we eat; those buzzing little insects pollinate many of our flowering fruits and veggies.

Yesterday, the USDA released a report on winter honey bee losses. Turns out we're not losing quite as many as last year, but we're still not in the clear.

See Also: Beekeepers, National Honey Bee Advisory Board Suing the EPA Over Pestcides

The study found from October 2013 through April 2014, the total losses of honey bee colonies were 23.2 percent across the country last winter.

It was an obvious drop compared to last winter's 30.5 percent loss. Previous surveys found losses of 21.9 percent in 2011-2012, 30 percent in 2010-2011, 33.8 percent in 2009-2010, around 29 percent in 2008-2009, approximately 36 percent in 2007-2008, and near 32 percent in 2006-2007.

The eight year average has been 29.6 percent; however, losses are still above the level that is considered economically sustainable by beekeepers, which is 18.9 percent. Nearly, two-thirds of the apiarists survey sustained losses greater than the threshold.

Losses remain above the level that beekeepers consider economically sustainable. This year, almost two-thirds of the beekeepers responding to the survey reported losses greater than the 18.9 percent level that beekeepers say is acceptable.

"Yearly fluctuations in the rate of losses like these only demonstrate how complicated the whole issue of honey bee heath has become, with factors such as viruses and other pathogens, parasites like varroa mites, problems of nutrition from lack of diversity in pollen sources, and even sublethal effects of pesticides combining to weaken and kill bee colonies," says Jeff Pettis, co-author of the survey and research leader of the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland.

According to Pettis and Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a University of Maryland assistant professor who is the leader of the survey and director of the Bee Informed Partnership, there's no way to tell why the insects did better this year.

The results are based on reports from beekeepers. It included around 7,200 apiarists who managed 564,522 colonies, which represented 21.7 percent of the nation's colonies hives. In 2012-2013 around 6,000 keepers responded to the same self-reported survey.

In past studies, keepers claimed a number of causes: queen failure, poor wintering conditions, and damage by varroa mites.

As claimed by the report, the growing agreement among researchers is that the varroa mite (an Asian parasite discovered in the U.S. in 1987) is one of the leading explanations for the losses.

Many scientists and activists, however, have another explanation. Several studies cite neonicotinoids, the world's most widely used class of pesticides, as a key factor in the losses. Studies have shown that they can outright kill bees and make them more vulnerable to to pests, pathogens, and other pressures.

Released just last week, a new study from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH) found a strong correlation between colony collapse disorder (CCD) and neonics.

Two widely used neonicotinoids--a class of insecticide--appear to significantly harm honey bee colonies over the winter, particularly during colder winters, according to a new study from Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). The study replicated a 2012 finding from the same research group that found a link between low doses of imidacloprid and Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), in which bees abandon their hives over the winter and eventually die. The new study also found that low doses of a second neonicotinoid, clothianidin, had the same negative effect.

Due to concerns with growing scientific evidence indicating neonicotinoids nefarious effects on bee populations, the European Union banned it in 2013.

These pesticides are still widely used in the United States on a variety of food crops, including almonds and apples.

"These dire honey bee numbers add to a consistent pattern of unsustainable bee losses in recent years. When combined with steep declines in wild pollinators, they point to the urgent need for action," says Lisa Archer, director of Friends of the Earth's Food and technology program. "Bees are the canary in the coal mine for our food system. While various factors are contributing to bee deaths, a strong and growing body of science tells us we must take action now to protect bees from neonicotinoid pesticides."

While many are calling for a ban on neonics in the U.S., awareness of their potential effects has grown. Many gardeners and commercial farms have discontinued its use.

Could this be the reason for seeing fewer losses this year? It's hard to tell, but it is kind of crazy that we're not erring on the side of caution. Without bees, we would lose a whole slew of produce.

Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera.

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