Virginia lost 59.5 percent of its honeybee colonies last winter, nearly double the average rate for the past decade, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
That rate is the highest since the state began tracking honeybee loss in 2000, state apiarist Keith Tignor said. No one cause is apparent, though habitat loss, environmental conditions, pests, diseases and pesticides are factors.
“We were expecting high losses; we just didn’t know how high they would be,” Tignor said.
Nationally, 30.7 percent of managed colonies were lost over the winter, a 9.5 percent increase from 2016. A healthy honeybee colony typically loses about 15 to 20 percent of its bees each winter, according to Yale University researchers.
VDACS staff members also found high levels of Varroa mites and nosema infections in wintering bees this year, which shorten the lifespan of worker bees. They have been cited as a potential cause of what has been referred to as colony collapse disorder.
Last winter’s loss, combined with cooler, wet conditions in May and June, means honeybees have had trouble pollinating this year, slowing colony buildup. Bees don’t typically fly in the rain, so they weren’t collecting nectar or pollen on many days this spring, Tignor said. That means food supplies in hives are low right now.
A high loss percentage makes it tougher for bees to survive the next winter, regardless of outside conditions or pests.
“Bees don’t hibernate or migrate like other insects,” Tignor said. “They cluster to generate heat and keep the queen and young bees alive. As the population gets smaller, that gets more stressful.”
To help combat the issue, VDACS has been encouraging people to become beekeepers or to plant pollinator gardens that honeybees feed on. But the solution isn’t necessarily that simple.
“There isn’t sufficient data yet to determine if pollinator gardens help,” said Margaret Couvillon, professor of pollinator biology and ecology at Virginia Tech.
She said that, in the short term, consumers can see effects of honeybee loss in things like almond prices. California almonds rely heavily on honeybee pollination, and a lack of bees can lead to an almond shortage.
“Longer term, we might see this shortage leading to innovation. Researchers are looking into alternate ways to pollinate,” Couvillon said.
Honeybee loss has been gaining national recognition. In 2015, the Obama administration announced a plan to boost research and preserve 7 million acres of bee habitat in the U.S. More recently, second lady Karen Pence added beehives to the vice president’s residence.
According to Couvillon, the recent attention is helpful.
“When the public cares, that’s important,” Couvillon said. “It helps fund our research.”
Courtesy Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
Virginia state apiarist Keith Tignor (right) speaks to children outside the Executive Mansion in April about bees using a beehive and sticks of honey.