Bumblebees Also Hurting ... And Where's That Government Aid?

There was a Senate Briefing last week, called by Senators Boxer (D-CA), Casey (D-PA) and Collins (R-ME) on the decline of honey bees and native pollinators and the threat posed to agriculture. Speaking at the briefing besides the senators were:

* May Berenbaum, Chair of the National Academy of Science Committee on the
Status Of North American Pollinators; Jeff Pettis from the USDA;

* Zac Browning, President of the American Beekeeping Federation and a commercial beekeeper;

* Richard Adee, Legislative Committee Chair of the American Honey Producers and
a commercial beekeeper;

* Doug Holy, invasive species specialist;

* Mace Vaughan from the Xerces Society, and

* Tom Van Arsdall, representing the Pollinator Partnership.

The purpose was to explore why the $20 million from Agriculture Appropriations requested months ago by the Senators has not yet been found and to discover what new developments have come about in the ongoing research on Colony Collapse Disorder since the last hearing several months ago.

On the research front not much has happened it seems. This is because most research projects are at a standstill due to lack of funding, or, as in the case of the 5-year USDA plan are just getting underway and haven't produced results yet. Some projects have been submitted to funding agencies within USDA and they are waiting for word on their progress. These, however, won't see the light of day until fall, and any results for at least a year and probably three before it's all over.

One report given described a dramatic decline in the bumblebee population in the past year, but not sure if CCD was involved. One beekeeper used the word brutalized ... an apt description concerning what came next.

The Growing Toll of Colony Collapse Disorder

The Apiary Inspectors Of America (AIA), the state-level regulators in the world of bees and beekeeping, commissioned a survey of colony losses this past winter. It is the best count of what's happened so far this year since it's the only count of what's happened so far this year (recall that lack of funding just mentioned).

The AIA talked to beekeepers who have under their control about 18% of the nations 2.44 million colonies (about a half million colonies). These are commercial beekeepers who are for the most part migratory pollinators, but not all are migratory and only make honey and some migrate but don't pollinate, though the majority move bees, make honey and pollinate several crops during a season simply because to be a commercial beekeeper you need to do it all to stay in business. What they found is not good news.

Overall these beekeepers suffered a 35.2% loss over winter. This represents a 10% increase compared to last year. Each of the 327 beekeepers (about a third of all commercial beekeepers in the U.S.), lost on average 31.4% of their bees.

Not all losses were due to Colony Collapse Disorder, certainly. In fact only about 29% of all the bees that died last winter died from CCD symptoms. But if your bees died of those symptoms you would lose, on average about 44% of your bees. If they died of, say starvation, you would lose only about 17% ... which is right about what most beekeepers lose every winter, anyway. CCD, then, just about triples winter losses for beekeepers.

So CCD hasn't gone away and, in fact, it is getting worse. Moreover, although Senator Boxer and her colleagues feel confident that "the $20 million will be", as Senator Casey told a friend and reporter, "put up by the Senate, at least," there are no guarantees what will happen in the House. So no new money has been allocated from anybody anywhere, and new research is still on hold or only getting started.

The one thing this survey wasn't able to capture was the extent of colony losses in only the past few weeks due to the abnormally late spring snow storms in the Midwest. Heavy colony losses are only just now being reported, (but not confirmed) in that region because beekeepers simply have not had weather that would permit examinations. These would be the beekeepers that do not migrate to California for the almond bloom, and even though they probably have already inspected their colonies once or twice, these late storms have cut off the bees' food supply and the beekeepers can't get back to help. Normally examinations would be complete and the bees building rapidly for the first early honey flows in May. Not this year. One wonders how much additional weight this will add to the numbers of colony losses this year. We'll know soon enough.

This is, if you are someone who keeps bees or likes to eat, one of those bad news, bad news, bad news messages.