America’s honeybees are not doomed
Upon hearing the news that some beekeepers across the country are still losing colonies over the winter, it might be easy to jump to the conclusion that the sky is falling, and that dead bees are falling to the ground with it.
Certainly, the loss of bee colonies is troubling, considering that the nation is still on the rebound from the effects of colony collapse, which was identified in 2006. That year, the number of colonies hit a low of 2.4 million. But since then, colonies across the country have rebounded, hitting 2.82 million by January of 2016, the USDA says.
According to a number of reports, America’s honeybees are not doomed. The Washington Post reported last July that 2014 numbers showed that managed colonies — commercial colonies managed by beekeepers — reached their highest level in 20 years.
One fact to remember is that colony losses aren’t uncommon. They happen over winters. And beekeepers can replace lost colonies. Bees, like other insects, can recover their numbers quite rapidly. A queen bee, which can reach sexual maturity at 7 days old, can lay more than 1,000 eggs per day (2,000 by some estimates) — millions during her lifetime — and worker bees can mature in about three weeks.
So this anecdotal evidence of declining bee numbers does not portend the end of the world.
But that doesn’t mean that humans should ignore the plight of these precious pollinators. They do face challenges — a “constellation” of factors that can lead to the loss of colonies, as one area beekeeper said.
Some ideas are speculation: Mild winter days might have tricked the bees into coming out of the clusters where they keep warm, then not being able to come back together before the next cold snap. Other ideas have research behind them: Neonicotinoids, a common pesticide, impair bees’ ability to fly, according to a recently released study.
That study by the University of California San Diego, supporting previous research, revealed that even if the pesticide doesn’t kill an individual bee, it can keep that bee from carrying out its role in the colony — that is, flying a distance to a foraging site and successfully returning to the hive. Bees that can’t make their way back to the hive ultimately mean a dead colony.
For that reason, and the fact that U.S. bee colony numbers are far below what they were before pesticide use became common in the mid-20th century (5 million managed colonies in the 1940s), it’s important to understand and combat those things that harm bees.
Bees have been friends to humankind for millennia. It doesn’t take an Einstein to know that people should be friends to bees.