Monday 16 May 2016

28% of US bees wiped out this winter, suggesting bigger environmental issues

More than half of beekeepers suffered unsustainable losses, with deadly mite infestations and harmful land management practices piling on pressure

Wednesday 11 May 201619.59 BST Last modified on Wednesday 11 May 201621.06 BST

More than a quarter of American honeybee colonies were wiped out over the winter, with deadly infestations of mites and harmful land management practices heaping mounting pressure upon the crucial pollinators and the businesses that keep them.

Preliminary figures commissioned by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) show that 28% of bee colonies in the United States were lost over the 2015-16 winter. More than half of surveyed beekeepers said they suffered unsustainable losses during the winter.

Over the year, from April 2015 to March 2016, beekeepers lost 44% of their colonies – the highest annual loss on record. Until six years ago annual figures were not kept as it was assumed colony losses were only suffered during winter, but similar declines are now occurring year-round.

“It’s very troubling and what really concerns me that we are losing colonies in summer too, when bees should be doing so well,” said Dennis van Engelsdorp, a University of Maryland bee scientist and survey leader. “This suggests there is something more going on – bees may be the canary in the coalmine of bigger environmental problems.

 “One in three bites of food we eat is directly or indirectly pollinated by bees. If we want to produce apples, cucumbers, almonds, blueberries and lots of other types of food, we need a functioning pollination system. Bees, and the beekeeping industry, will suffer dramatically if we don’t have that.”

Bees’ woes have been pinned to a number of factors, including the mass conversion of pollen-rich meadows into heavily farmed land for staples such as corn and soy beans. Pesticide use and the spread of the varroa mite, parasites that suck blood from bees, which weakens and even kills off colonies, are also driving the decline.

There were an estimated 5m bee colonies in the US in 1940, but only half of them now remain. Numbers have rebounded slightly over the past decade but van Engelsdorp said “this is not a reassuring sign” as it suggests beekeepers are deliberately creating more colonies in the expectation they will die off.

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