More Bad Buzz For Bees: Record Numbers Of Honey Bee Colonies Died Last Winter

Honey bee hives stand on a field at the Central Maryland Research and Education Center in Beltsville, Maryland. CREDIT: OLIVIA FALCIGNO/NPR
Honey bee hives stand on a field at the Central Maryland Research and Education Center in Beltsville, Maryland. CREDIT: OLIVIA FALCIGNO/NPR

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BY SUSIE NEILSON

It’s a sweltering morning in Beltsville, Md., and I’m face-to-face with bee doom. Mark Dykes, a “Bee Squad coordinator” at the University of Maryland, shakes a Mason jar filled with buzzing honey bees that are coated with powdered sugar. The sugar loosens the grip of tiny Varroa mites, a parasite that plagues bees; as he sifts the powder into a bowl, they poke out like hairy pebbles in snow.

“Right now there [are] three mites per hundred [bees],” says Dennis vanEngelsdorp, associate professor of entomology at the University of Maryland and president of the Bee Informed Partnership, which studies bee survival rates. That’s a high rate of mites, vanEngelsdorp says: “If this were September and you were seeing that number, you’d expect the hive to die” during the lean months of winter.

Honey bees crawl through a modern-day hive. This past winter saw the most dramatic losses of managed honey bee colonies in 13 years, according to researchers. CREDIT: OLIVIA FALCIGNO/NPR

Honey bees crawl through a modern-day hive. This past winter saw the most dramatic losses of managed honey bee colonies in 13 years, according to researchers. CREDIT: OLIVIA FALCIGNO/NPR

Bee colony death continues to rise. According to the Bee Informed Partnership’s latest survey, released this week, U.S. beekeepers lost nearly 40% of their honey bee colonies last winter — the greatest reported winter hive loss since the partnership started its surveys 13 years ago. Total annual loss was slightly above average.

The survey included responses from nearly 4,700 beekeepers managing almost 320,000 hives, comprising about 12% of total managed honey-producing colonies in the country.

Bee decline has many causes, including decreasing crop diversity, poor beekeeping practices and loss of habitat. Pesticides weaken bees’ immune systems and can kill them. Varroa mites (full, ominous species name: Varroa destructor) latch onto honey bees and suck their “fat body” tissue, stunting and weakening them and potentially causing entire colonies to collapse.

Beekeepers use this device, called a smoker, to calm honey bees. CREDIT: OLIVIA FALCIGNO/NPR

Beekeepers use this device, called a smoker, to calm honey bees. CREDIT: OLIVIA FALCIGNO/NPR

“Beekeepers are trying their best to keep [mites] in check, but it’s really an arms race,” says Nathalie Steinhauer, science coordinator for the Bee Informed Partnership and co-author of the report (vanEngelsdorp is also an author). “That’s concerning, because we know arms races don’t usually end well.”

Steinhauer says Varroa mites are the “number one concern” around wintertime. They’ve become harder to control, she says, because some of the tools that beekeepers have been using — chemical strips that attract and kill mites, essential oils and organic acids —