This past winter in the United States saw the most honeybee colonies lost in more than a decade, according to the nonprofit Bee Informed.
From October 1 to April 1, an estimated 37.7% of US managed honeybee colonies – colonies that are not wild – were lost. The number is up 7 percentage points from last winter’s count and is the highest level reported since Bee Informed began the survey in 2006.
In the survey, beekeepers also said that a 22% loss would be acceptable, but even that number has increased from previous years.
“This increased acceptable loss may indicate that beekeepers are more realistic or pragmatic in their expectations of colony losses,” the survey said.
Surviving winter is an indicator of bee colony health
Because surviving the winter months is an indicator of the health of the bee colony, an increase in winter loss means bee colonies could be weakening overall.
The survey also reported that the United States lost 40.7% of managed honeybee colonies in the past year, almost 3 percentage points higher than the average annual rate of loss reported by beekeepers since 2010.
The news comes after a US Department of Agriculture announcement that it will no longer collect data on bee colonies. The USDA has been collecting data on honeybee numbers and colony losses since 2015 but will no longer be able to do so after funding cuts from the federal government.
The move, though temporary, further pushed back a focus on bee conservation promoted by former President Barack Obama, and it is at least the third bee-related dataset suspended under President Donald Trump.
Every 1 in 3 bites of food is thanks to pollinators like honeybees
The increase in bee colony loss during the winter is another sign of increasing bee deaths and disappearances, leading to what some call a bee crisis and putting food security at risk.
Most plants rely on pollinators, like bees, to reproduce. So if the bees disappear, it doesn’t only affect honey; many crops that humans rely on could start disappearing, too. The USDA notes that pollinators, most often honeybees, are responsible for 1 in every 3 bites of food we eat. They also increase the nation’s crop values each year by over $15 billion.
It’s hard to say why bees are dying, but some probable causes are pesticides, parasites or climate change. Scientists and nonprofits have taken steps to understand and mitigate the crisis, including studying honeybees in Africa, where commercialized beekeeping has not been as intrusive.