Honey bee losses continue to plague beekeepers

An annual survey of beekeepers shows higher than average losses over the past year

Bees are busy outside a hive
Bees are busy outside a hive managed by hobby beekeeper Jonathan Garaas near Fargo. MPR file photo.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

An annual voluntary survey of U.S. beekeepers found higher than average honey bee colony loss over the past year.

The survey of losses from April 2022 to April 2023 includes responses from beekeepers responsible for about 12 percent of bee colonies in the U.S.

The survey was started in 2007 by the Bee Informed Partnership in an effort to collect data about increasing honey bee losses reported by apiarists across the country.

"What we really have noticed over the years is that there are really few good years, we have lots of high loss years, and some that are a little less high," said survey leader Nathalie Steinhauer. "But overall, it is still higher than what beekeepers consider is acceptable."

For the most recent survey 3,006 beekeepers from across the United States managing 314,360 colonies responded to the survey. That represents 12 percent of the estimated 2.7 million managed colonies.

A honeybee sat on a milkweed plant
A honeybee on a milkweed plant. MPR file photo August 6, 2015 near Jamestown, ND.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News

Steinhauer is a researcher at the University of Maryland and leads the Bee Informed Partnership colony loss survey. She says the survey shows small beekeepers and large commercial beekeepers are experiencing colony loss at different times of the year. The past two surveys have documented an increase in summer loss for small beekeepers, while this survey found a noticeable increase in winter loss among commercial operators.

Populations stable

Honey bee populations remain relatively stable according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, because beekeepers split existing hives to replace those that are lost.

"But that is one of the most labor intensive parts of the beekeeping year," said Dan Aurell, a researcher for the Bee Informed Partnership. "Splitting colonies means that you have, all of a sudden, smaller units that then aren't going to be as productive in the short term if there's a honey production period shortly after splitting. So it's both labor intensive and can come at the cost of some production."

The Bee Informed Partnership is a non-profit collaborative organization focused on reducing honey bee colony loss.

While this survey is voluntary on the part of beekeepers, Steinhauer said it provides what is now a long term data set showing honey bee losses and the risk factors beekeepers identify as the reason for the loss.

The parasitic varroa mite remains the most commonly reported reason for loss, along with weather and the loss of egg laying queens.

The survey also shows a majority of beekeepers have increased management of their colonies in an effort to protect them.

"It is a little disheartening, because we see that more and more beekeepers are following good practices, but we cannot show them the results of their effort," said Steinhauer. "Honey bee losses are not improving as a response, which really tells us that there is still other things in the environment that are putting a lot of stress on the bees and that it's not an one single problem. Therefore, there is no easy-fix solution."