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The Bee Keeper

What the Winter Loss Survey Tells Us About Colony Collapse Disorder

(And it ain't pretty.)


bee on flower

The Daily Green has changed its pointer a bit recently, and The Beekeeper hasn’t been as active here as before. But TheDailyGreen still hosts all of the Beekeeper’s contributions because they support the fundamentals of getting, and keeping a healthy honey bee population. The Beekeeper has moved though, and is still making contributions to other blogs. The most recent is a Mother Earth News blog, which harkens back to my youth certainly, and now again because they are seeking good information on bees and beekeeping. Interestingly, my people here at Bee Culture Magazine have put together a blog page for me also, so there will be regular updates for colony collapse disorder and other beekeeping issues, plus all the regular information on getting started and keeping going with bees, just like here. That blog address will be blog.beeculture.com, but it’s not up quite yet... I’ll pass along that information as soon as I have it.

In the meantime, if you haven’t already heard, the USDA has released the results of their latest winter loss survey.

The last four paragraphs are telling, and rather than rewrite them I simply copy them here...

Preliminary survey results indicate that 30% of managed honey bee colonies in the United States were lost during the 2010/2011 winter. The percentage of losses have remained relatively steady (near or above 30%) over the last 5 years. Specifically, previous survey results indicated that 34% of the total colony loss in the winters of 2009/2010; 29% in 2008/2009; 36% in 2007/2008; and 32% in 2006/2007.

If we consider colony losses within individual beekeeper’s operations, then responding U.S. beekeepers lost an average of 38.4% of their operation. This is a 3.8 point or 9.0% decrease in the average operational loss experienced by U.S. beekeepers during the winter of 2009/2010. Beekeepers reported that, on average, they felt losses of 13% would be acceptable. Sixty-one percent of responding beekeepers reported having losses greater than this.

Colony Collapse Disorder (colony collapse disorder) is a phenomenon in which an entire colony of bees abruptly disappears from its hive. Of beekeepers surveyed who reported losing some colonies, 31% lost at least some of their colonies without the presence of dead bees. We cannot confirm that these colonies had colony collapse disorder, but respondents to this question reported higher average colony losses (61%) than those respondents who lost colonies but did not report the absence of dead bees (34%).

It is important to note that this survey only reports on losses that occur during the winter and does not capture the colony losses that occur throughout the summer as queens or entire colonies fail and need to be replaced. Preliminary data from other survey efforts suggest that these “summer losses” can also be significant. Beekeepers can replace colonies lost in the summer and winter by splitting the populations of surviving colonies to establish a new hive. This process is expensive, so replacing 30% of the nation’s colonies annually is not considered sustainable over the long-term.

Now recall...

Before Varroa mites came to the U.S., average winter losses for all beekeepers hovered right around 15%, give or take a little when winters were harder, or softer. But right about the time Varroa came here, many, if not most commercial operations began the almond quest, so they started moving from northern honey production areas to southern honey, split and overwintering spots, so they could requeen and build up their colonies to move west to California in February, or earlier, for almond pollination. That’s went winter losses began to climb to about 20% a year, more or less, depending on winter. But Varroa was the culprit, for sure.

So when you get a report that winter losses are now hovering right around 30%, you can see that times are twice as hard as they were before Varroa reared its ugly little head, and half again as hard as after it arrived. As my friend Jerry says... Times are hard.

And in the 26 years Varroa has been here, science has done a wonderful job of telling beekeepers how bad things are, that viruses and diseases are running rampant in our colonies, that our bees are not getting enough good food to eat, and that we are still not controlling Varroa... and if we did, most of the viruses and diseases would be less of a problem.

So, after several years of reporting on this issue on these pages, not a whole lot has changed, has it?

My cynical side says that if the problem was solved, what would all the honey bee scientists in the world do for a living... but that’s not fair, is it? My beekeeping side says that Varroa is the toughest nut we’ve ever had to crack, and it has to be cracked by better management (that would be me), better bees (that would be the queen producers and queen breeders), and better science (all the white coats looking for answers). And we are getting there.

A paper just out from the University of California in San Francisco provided another big window on what’s wrong with our bees by cataloging all the viruses (nearly 30, including 4 never seen before) bees have, and, interestingly, that the problems bees have with all these beasties seems to be cyclical... perhaps more like us getting colds in the winter than we would like to believe. You can find that paper here, and it makes for very, very interesting reading.

Well, that’s the summary and the update and the status of Colony Collapse Disorder as of today... early June, 2011. We’ve spent a lot of time here during the last couple of years or so, and I hope you’ll do two things... keep up with TheDailyGreen.com... They do a great job here, and I always enjoy what they have to say... and, when time permits, take a look at my new blogs at Mother Earth News, and blog.beeculture.com. If keeping bees, or keeping up with beekeeping is important to you, we’ll keep you up to date at those two locations.

Thanks for reading all of these entries... It’s been fun, and I hope you gained something because of them...

Kim Flottum, The Beekeeper.

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Kim Flottum

Kim Flottum

Kim Flottum is the editor of Bee Culture magazine.
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Bee Culture: The magazine of American beekeeping.
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