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Almost a third of American honeybee colonies did not make it through the winter. This is according to the country’s beekeepers, who say that the high death rate could mean a huge hit to environmental wellness. The annual survey was started by the US Department of Agriculture six years ago, and, on average, 30% of all the honeybee colonies died off over each winter.
The worst year was five years ago, but last year was the best – with just 22% of the colonies dying. Jeffrey Pettis, research leader of the Agriculture Department’s Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, commented, ‘Last year gave us some hope.’ However, this year has dashed that hope, seeing a bee colony death rate off 31%. Pettis explained that beekeepers are mostly seeing colonies that just dwindle, and as the crowd of bees gets smaller, it gets weaker. Pettis noted, ‘They can’t generate heat very well in the spring to rear brood. They can’t generate heat to fly.’
Not only is this a problem for the bees and their keepers, but also farmers who rely on commercial beekeepers to make sure their crops get pollinated. It is getting to the point where there may not be enough honeybees to pollinate crops, such as almonds, blueberries and apples. Pettis said that farmers have now come closer than ever to a true pollination crisis, with the only saving grace this year for part of the almond crop in California being the good weather at pollination time. ‘We got incredibly good flight weather,’ Pettis explained. ‘So even those small colonies that can’t fly very well in cool weather, they were able to fly because of good weather.’
Beekeeping will soon no longer be a viable business, Pettis said, as beekeepers can afford to lose only about 15% of their colonies each year. However, he added, some commercial beekeepers will just keep on going because they love the business so much. ‘It’s just something that gets in your blood, so you don’t want to give up. [You say,] “OK, it’s 30 percent this year; I’ll do better next year.” We’re very much optimists,’ he enthused.