U.S. Honeybee Population Decline Is Slowing, But Is It Really ‘Good News’ As Many Say?

A new survey from a bee preservation think tank suggests that the U.S. honeybee population has some hope ahead, with winter losses reaching their lowest levels in over 10 years. But can this be considered “good news,” based on the recently-released figures?

The Bee Informed Partnership describes itself on its official website as a “collaboration of efforts across the country” from multiple research facilities and universities dedicated to understanding the continuing declines in U.S. honeybee populations. While the think tank was previously supported by the U.S. government, it is currently a nonprofit that works closely with beekeepers toward its goal of keeping healthier bees and stemming population declines.

In its most recent survey, the Bee Informed Partnership announced this week that beekeepers lost just 21 percent of their honeybee colonies over the winter of 2016, marking the lowest winter loss figures since the first survey was launched in 2006. One year prior, the survey showed a 27 percent winter loss, further underscoring last winter’s figures as a huge improvement. Still, as CBS News noted, this is still well below the U.S. government’s objective of keeping honeybee population losses below the 15 percent mark each winter.

In a statement, survey director Dennis vanEngelsdorp expressed satisfaction in the results, yet warned that bee populations are still declining and still a problem that has to be dealt with.

“It’s good news in that the numbers are down, but it’s certainly not a good picture. It’s gone from horrible to bad.”

[Image by Joe Raedle/Getty Images]

VanEngelsdorp, who works as an entomologist at the University of Maryland, credited the lower honeybee population declines to a reduction in varroa mites. With a new product being used to control the mites, and improved weather for pesticide use also contributing as a variable, winter losses were down significantly in 2016, and also lower than the 10-year running average of 28.4 percent.

Varroa mites, however, remain a problem for many beekeepers in certain parts of the United States, according to a report from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. In an interview with the publication, Sisters of St. Joseph beekeeper Sister Lyn Szymkiewicz related how she had lost three colonies in 2016 due to the mite’s ability to spread viruses fatal to bee colonies — the first time she had ever lost a colony in 11 years keeping bees at the Baden, Pennsylvania site.

“Last year was the first year I lost a colony and I lost three. And last year the mite counts were the highest I’ve ever seen.”

Aside from the threat of varroa mites, there are other variables that scientists have blamed for the decline in U.S. honeybee populations, including disease, the threat of pesticides, and a lack of sustenance. And, as CBS News observed, bee protections imposed by the previous administration may be at risk during President Donald Trump’s current administration, due to the threat of budget cuts affecting environmental regulations.

While bee experts appear to be happy with the Bee Informed Partnership’s survey results, some believe that calling the results “good news” is stretching things too far. Gizmodo, for one, wrote that unhealthy bee colonies have the potential to threaten healthy ones, while farmers whose crops are pollinated by bees often end up with the short end of the stick, as beekeepers deal with the constant threat of what is known as colony collapse disorder.

“A dead colony can potentially be revived by beekeepers, but it requires extra labor and a loss of productivity. The costs incurred by beekeepers fighting colony death is often passed on to U.S. farmers who rely on the bees to pollinate $15 billion worth of crops per year.”

Still, that doesn’t mean that the Bee Informed Partnership’s survey didn’t show improvements in other key metrics. Yearly losses, while not exactly at record-low levels, were down in 2016, while a third of the honeybee population in colonies that existed in April 2016 died a year later, marking an improvement over the annual loss rate of over 40 percent a year prior.

[Featured Image by Joe Raedle/Getty Images]