Almost a third of managed U.S. honey bees died last winter, according to a new survey of commercial and home beekeepers. That’s more than triple the losses of 5 to 10 percent that used to be normal for beekeepers before 2005 — and double the 15 percent that beekeepers say is acceptable for their businesses to continue unharmed.
The finding marks a disturbing trend among honey bees: each winter since 2006, the Bee Informed Partnership has documented losses of 21.9 to 36 percent of U.S. hives. In some states, the die offs have been even more drastic — this year, beekeepers in Montana and South Dakota reported losses of 40 to 50 percent of their hives, and in Maryland, nearly 60 percent of managed bees didn’t make it through the winter.
For some, this year’s losses have been unprecedented, as one beekeeper told the New York Times:
They looked so healthy last spring,” said Bill Dahle, 50, who owns Big Sky Honey in Fairview, Mont. “We were so proud of them. Then, about the first of September, they started to fall on their face, to die like crazy. We’ve been doing this 30 years, and we’ve never experienced this kind of loss before.
The large-scale die offs — attributed in part to a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder — have gained widespread attention in the recent months. That’s partly because if the deaths continue, they could have a major impact on the nation’s food system.
The USDA estimates that one-third of all food and beverages consumed in the U.S. are dependent on pollination, with crops such as almonds and squash relying most heavily on bees to produce seeds. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 71 percent of the world’s most widely-consumed crops are pollinated by bees — and these crops are worth at least $207 billion. But this year, bee losses caused farmers to come extremely close to a pollination crisis, leading to warnings about impending food insecurity.
In April, the European Union implemented a two-year ban on three neonicotinoids, a class of widely-used pesticides that’s been linked in laboratory studies to bee death. The pesticides, which are the most common poisonous chemicals in honey bee environments, attack the bees’ nervous systems, confusing them and impairing their ability to find and gather food. Despite the fact that at least 30 laboratory studies have linked neonicotinoids to bee die offs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency recently released a report that linked Colony Collapse Disorder to a variety of factors and called for more research on neonicotinoids.
Unsurprisingly, the multibillion-dollar chemical industry has fought against a ban on neonicotinoids, rejecting the scientific evidence that the pesticides are contributing to bee deaths. In March, a group of beekeepers and major consumer and environmental organizations, including the Sierra Club, filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to protect honey bees and other pollinators from neonicotinoids. The EPA is planning on issuing a review of the pesticides and their effect on bees, but it won’t be completed until 2018.