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Maryland Beekeepers Ended 2016 with Another Year of Heavy Losses

By Bill Castro
Bee Friendly Apiary
The year 2016 will be known to Maryland beekeepers as another year of extremely heavy losses. According to Bee Informed Partnership (BIP), losses exceeded 56 percent in 2016. Over a three-year average, Maryland beekeepers have lost 54 percent of their total colonies.
Maryland has approximately 14,000 (plus) registered honeybee colonies, according to Maryland State Agriculture statistics. The average replacement cost per colony is $150 with colonies ranging from a $100 package to $200 per nucleus colony.
This means that beekeepers in Maryland spend over $1.13 million each year to replace the approximately 7,600 lost registered honeybee colonies. These figures do not include lost revenue, lost labor, or losses in potential business growth that would otherwise be possible by splitting healthy colonies.
There are multiple, complex reasons for these losses. For example, forage is the basis of a healthy colony’s immune system. Yet, most areas of Maryland saw very low levels of abundant natural forage and rainfall this year, adversely affecting immunity. Colonies with compromised immune systems can easily succumb to the ravages of mites, viruses, and bacterial infections.
In addition, many beekeepers have seen an increase in pesticide use in the form of lawn and yard spraying, compounded by municipal and private broad spectrum pesticide spraying in response to threats like Zika virus. Moreover, summer queen failures have become a chronic problem in the state. Some of these queen failures are occurring within the first summer after a colony is established. Historically, such queen failures would have been considered a rarity. Furthermore, the translocation of honeybee colonies is highly problematic as colonies are unable to easily or fully integrate into the environment into which they have been transported.

If managed honeybee losses are this high, how do we think that wild native bee populations are faring? It may be difficult to know for sure, but managed populations are the only ones which beekeepers have regular access. If managed honeybees are facing difficulties, then it is reasonable to assume that wild native bee populations are suffering in similar ways.

In the magazine Science, Dr. David Goulson, Elizabeth Nicholls, Cristina Botías, and Ellen L. Rotheray published Bee Declines Driven by Combined Stress from Parasites, Pesticides, and Lack of Flowers, research suggesting possible ways to mitigate managed honeybee colony losses, including:

  • Decline in the abundance and diversity of flowers,
  • Exposure to a cocktail of agrochemicals, and
  • Threats from novel parasites accidentally spread by humans.

Climate change is likely to exacerbate these problems. Stressors to bee populations do not act in isolation. For example, pesticide exposure can impair both detoxification mechanisms and immune responses, rendering bees more susceptible to parasites. It seems certain that chronic exposure to multiple interacting stressors is driving honey bee colony losses and declines of wild pollinators, but such interactions are not addressed by current regulatory procedures. Studying these interactions experimentally poses a major challenge.

In the meantime, taking steps to reduce stress on bees would seem prudent. Incorporating flower-rich habitats into farmland, reducing pesticide use through adopting more sustainable farming methods, and enforcing effective quarantine measures on bee movements are all practical measures that should be adopted. Effective monitoring of wild pollinator populations is urgently needed to inform management strategies into the future.

Beekeepers here in Maryland have very tough decisions to make. Our current track record for managed honeybee losses is abysmal, in fact the entire Mid-Atlantic region is suffering from catastrophic honeybee loss in managed colonies. Do we make much needed corrections to our management of our colonies or pursue the “same ol’ same ol’” and continue to pay for replacement colonies, which in many cases only exacerbates the situation?

We can make things better for pollinators and give them the best possible chance for survival, but in order to do that, we must all act together to see those changes come to fruition.

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