The Beekeeper’s Companion Since 1861

Beekeeping Topics

Examining the Reasons for Colony Losses

- October 1, 2016 - Ray Nabors - (excerpt)

Honey bees are the only creatures that do not kill any other living thing to complete their life cycle. They do not even harm plants let alone kill or injure any other animals in their day to day activity of making a living. They will inject venom into any creature that attacks their home, including people.  The act of injecting venom (sting) results in suicide for the individual bee. Their pollination leaves the world a better place than they found it. Their activity facilitates production of food, feed, fiber, flowers, and forest that give numerous animals and humans fruit, vegetables, seeds and nuts for consumption and even plant fibers for clothing. Flowers, the sex organs of plants, make our world more beautiful.

We often hear that there is a shortage of bees. Recently, more swarms are surviving in the wild. These feral nests of bees are the same excellent pollinators kept by beekeepers. Given their own selection, bees will nest in hollow trees, caves, wall voids or other cavities in their environment. The bees tend to nest about a mile or more apart. This does not provide enough pollination for plant production by people. Therefore, we are faced with a shortage of beekeepers as much or more than a shortage of bees. The price of equipment for housing bees and the inputs for maintenance are now so expensive that profit margins for beekeepers are squeezed. Local honey is more expensive than it has been for many years because when bees are killed out, the beekeepers are cutting back on the colonies they keep, buying expensive replacements or retiring from beekeeping altogether.

The average loss for beekeepers each year is about one of three colonies. The range of loss goes from about 25% to 50% annually. Whenever you hear or see the news, they often give you the average of something. Without the range that average is actually meaningless. For instance if the average is 50% and the range is 0 to 100%, the average is meaningless, but a range of 40% – 60% makes 50% a significant average. Replacing bees is now a major cost for all beekeepers. Many are beginning to use swarm traps to collect the local surviving colonies. This shows promise in helping reduce losses. Nationally, we have lost more than half of our beekeepers since the introduction of Varroa mites. Anyone interested in beekeeping should contact their local beekeepers association, get a subscription to the American Bee Journal and/or Bee Culture, take a beginner beekeeping class and befriend beekeepers who have kept bees locally for at least 5 years.

Many people believe that “native pollinators” can increase to make up for the loss of honey bees. The truth is that we need native pollinators. Bumble bees pollinate tomatoes and peppers where honey bees do not. Tomatoes and peppers are native to the Western Hemisphere as are those Bumble bees. Honey bees are native to all of Europe, Africa and most of Asia. The old world continents are also the native homes of apples, pears, peaches, all cruciferous crops (cabbage family), soybeans, and most of our other fruit and vegetable crops. We have about 3 of every 4 crops grown on the American Continents whose native pollinator is the honey bee. Do we want to send back, destroy and not use all of the non-native plants along with not using honey bees? The honey bee has been on the continent of North America since about 1600. Honey bees are now indigenous to every continent except Antarctica and isolated islands.

The late Prof. Roger Morse pointed out that our honey bee could be the first invertebrate to have maladies recorded. Aristotle of Greece evidently reported diseased honey bee larvae that described Foulbrood. Pathogenic organisms that infect bees include: bacteria, fungi, protozoa and viruses. Pests of bees such as parasitic mites are known to vector disease.

Pests such as the small hive beetle and wax moth have a detrimental effect on honey bee colonies, especially those already weakened. The wax moth and small hive beetle also destroy millions of dollars worth of combs every year. Dragon flies are predators on honey bees. Skunks and bears are major mammal predators of honey bees. These two mammals cause thousands of dollars worth of damage to bee colonies annually.

Chemicals used for crop protection can and do harm honey bees every year. It must be realized that poisoned bees are more susceptible to disease, parasitism and predation. Many honey bee pathogens flourish under stress conditions. Honey bees are also more susceptible to …