Second Largest Honeybee Decline Ever

second largest honeybee decline

Over the past year, the U.S. honeybee population suffered its second largest decline ever. The largest decline happened just two years before, in 2020-2021.

That’s according to preliminary data from the Bee Informed Partnership‘s Colony Loss and Management Survey, a yearly survey of U.S. beekeepers ranging in size from backyard (up to 50 colonies) to commercial (more than 50 colonies).

Overall, from April 1 of last year to the same date this year, U.S. beekeepers lost nearly half – 48% – of their colonies.

In the one worse year on record, 2020-21, the loss rate was over half, at 51%.

The largest causes of colony loss were Varroa mites, queen issues, and weather.  At the commercial scale, pesticide losses were also significant, though this factor was not as much of an issue for backyard or sideline-scale beekeepers.

In the 1980s, when the Varroa mite first became widespread in North America, colony loss rates took their first big jump up, to around 20%. Colony collapse disorder (CCD), appearing in the 2000s, caused another big bump. CCD has since declined somewhat, but overall colony loss rates have remained historically high.

Since the Bee Informed Partnership survey began, in 2007, the average yearly nationwide colony loss rate has been around 40%. The overall number of colonies has remained more or less the same over that time period – about 2.6 million. That means that beekeepers are coming up with ways to replace about two out of every five colonies they keep, year after year.

That seems like a precarious treadmill for agricultural pollination to be running on, with an estimated one out of every three bites of food humans consume coming from a crop pollinated by honeybees. The natural response might be to take up beekeeping, and many people are doing just that. However, as the Xerces Society’s Scott Black memorably pointed out, that’s a bit like trying to save threatened songbird populations by raising more chickens.  Besides, native bees are effective crop pollinators in their own right.

Moreover, while crop pollination has grown dependent on honeybees, ecosystem-wide pollination services for native plants are far more dependent on a diverse collection of native bees, many of which are directly, negatively impacted by efforts to sustain honeybee numbers.

As such, the consensus recommendations for individuals wanting to help the bees – all the bees, not just honeybees – are to lay off the pesticides, and plant more native pollinator plants, which nourish native bees and honeybees alike.

beekeepingnative plants

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