A preliminary tally indicates that almost a third of all of the managed bee colonies in the United States — 31.1 percent — didn't survive the winter. That makes it the fourth-worst winter since 2006.
Bee Informed, a partnership funded in part by the Department of Agriculture, released its annual survey of colony deaths yesterday. For the seventh winter in a row, the percentage of colonies that didn't survive exceeded the "acceptable" range of 14 percent. For the fourth time in those seven seasons, the percentage that didn't survive was double what scientists consider acceptable.
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It's normal for some bee colonies not to survive the winter. Bees are, for obvious reasons, less active during the winter months, relying on each other for heat and on stockpiles of food. Depending on the winter, that alone can be damaging; as noted above, beekeepers consider a 14 percent over-winter loss a normal part of the job.
But the recent onset of the still-mysterious colony collapse disorder (CCD) has significantly increased the risk to colonies. In that respect, the Department of Agriculture's press release on the research offered a bit of good news: CCD was not "a major cause of colony loss this past winter." Instead, more colonies "dwindled away."
The Wall Street Jounral explained the economic risk bee deaths pose. Bees produce less honey when they're in a new colony. With the need for more new colonies, that means lower honey production, reducing farmer incomes. Then, of course, there's pollination. Bees are a critical part of the agricultural process, particularly for almonds. The Journal notes:
Each year, beekeepers from across the country truck more than 1.5 million colonies to the almond orchards. They set down boxed hives among the trees, and the insects forage from flower to flower, picking up and distributing pollen that the trees need to reproduce.
The largest almond grower in California, Paramount Farming Co. of Bakersfield, began scrambling last year amid reports of die-offs to avoid a shortage of bees, said Gordon Wardell, the company's apiculturist. "I had backup bees lined up," he said. Eventually, he found just enough: about 91,000 colonies to pollinate 46,000 acres of almonds.
Unfortunately, the survey found that almond pollinators were far more likely to suffer from die-off than non-almond pollinators. Twenty percent of those beekeepers whose colonies pollinated almonds saw half of those colonies die.