There has been a growing voice warning of the continuing decline in pollinators across much of the western world. What is causing the dwindling numbers is a matter of great debate, with some citing disease and others leveling the blame firmly at the door of pesticides. But what is clear is that something is happening, and the latest report from beekeepers in the U.S. shows that honey bees are continuing to die off.
According to the figures, over the past year from April 2015 to April 2016, beekeepers lost a staggering 44 percent of their honey bee colonies. But what is really troubling is the number of hives lost during summer, when bees should be expanding their colonies and doing well as there is usually plenty of food for them to be foraging on. This year saw the number of colonies lost during the summer match those that were lost during the winter, which was 28.1 percent.
“We're now in the second year of high rates of summer loss, which is cause for serious concern,” explains Dennis vanEngelsdorp, project director for the Bee Informed Partnership, who conduct the annual survey of beekeepers in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “Some winter losses are normal and expected. But the fact that beekeepers are losing bees in the summer, when bees should be at their healthiest, is quite alarming.”
The news plays into a wider picture of pollinator losses over the past few years. Despite there being some reports that the number of commercial bee colonies (that’s excluding any “backyard beekeeper" who manages fewer than 50 hives) within the U.S. is currently standing at a 20 year high, this doesn’t address the fact that beekeepers are losing almost half of their hives every year. Bumping up the number of colonies might make it seem like pollinators are doing well, but the fact is there are still underlying problems that are causing a significant rate of hive mortality.
But it is not only the honey bees that are of concern. They only account for a handful of bee species, and the bees only a fraction of all insect species that are vital for the pollination of crops. These worrying declines have led to a moratorium in Europe on the use of pesticides containing neonicotinoids, as some studies suggest that they mess with pollinators', particularly bees', ability to navigate. This prevents them from returning to the hive, and subsequently leads to them dying.
This recent news, which surveyed 5,700 beekeepers from 48 states who represent about 15 percent of the estimated 2.66 million honey bee hives kept in the U.S., is worrying for another reason. After a record rate of loss between 2012 and 2013, some thought that things might have been getting better, but these results reverse any positive trend. It seems that too little is still being done to try and help save the insects on which we all rely.