That's the consensus of the declining honey bee population in the United States.
A newly released poll showed that our nation's beekeepers lost an average of 21 percent of their colonies last winter, as compared to 27 percent the winter before, according to the 11th annual survey conducted by the Bee Informed Partnership. They polled nearly 5000 beekeepers.
"We would, of course, all love it if the trend continues, but there are so many factors playing a role in colony health," bee expert Elina Lastro Niño of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, told the Associated Press in a recent news story headlined “Survey Finds U.S. Honeybee Losses Improve from Horrible to Bad.”
Nino, who was not part of the survey, added “I am glad to see this, but wouldn't celebrate too much yet."
Survey director Dennis vanEngelsdorp. a University of Maryland apiculturist, told the Associated Press: "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."
Indeed, the 10-year average for winter losses is 28.4 percent, and bee scientists want it down to at least 15 percent.
Pests, pesticides, diseases, stress and malnutrition all play a role in our nation's honey bee population decline.
Eric Mussen, Extension apiculturist emeritus, who retired in 2014 after a 38-year career, has long pointed out the malnutrition issue is a major factor in the declining bee population.
"You, no doubt, have lost track of how many times I have stated that malnutrition is a leading factor in our unacceptable annual bee colony loss numbers," Mussen wrote in a 2013 bimonthly newsletter, from the UC Apiaries, located on the Department of Entomology and Nematology website. "I have also stated innummerable times that our synthesized bee diets just cannot match the value of nutrients obtained by bees from a mixture of quality pollens. My concern has been that although we have a very good idea of the protein requirements for honey bees, the rations of essential amino acids honey bees require, and their required vitamins and minerals, etc., we still cannot feed bees on our best diets and keep them alive more than two months in confinement."
Malnutrition is linked to a number of factors, including loss of habitat, but also climate change.
Scientists believe that our rising carbon dioxide levels may contribute to die-off of bees. A May 2016 Yale publication warned that "Rising C02 Levels May Contribute to Die-off of Bees."
"As they investigate the factors behind the decline of bee populations, scientists are now eyeing a new culprit--soaring levels of carbon dioxide, which alter plant physiology and significantly reduce protein in important sources of pollen," wrote Lisa Palmer.
This is the gist of it: scientists headed over to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History to examine the pollen content of goldenrod specimens, dating back to 1842. Why goldenrod? It's a key food source for bees in the summer to late-fall bloomer when not much else is blooming.
They compared samples from 1842 to 2014, when atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide rose from about 280 parts per million to 398 pmm, and found the results quite troubling--a lot less protein in the pollen of newer specimens. In fact, the most recent pollen samples contained 30 percent less protein. "The greatest drop in protein occurred from 1960 to 2014, when the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose dramatically," Palmer wrote.
Scientists speculate the rising carbon dioxide concentrations--think climate change--may be playing a role in the global die-off of bee populations "by undermining bee nutrition and reproductive success," Palmer wrote.
Noted entomologist May Berenbaum, professor of entomology and head of the Department of Entomology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (she's now a past president of the Entomological Society of America) was quoted in the article: "A declining quality of protein across the board almost assuredly is affecting bees. Like humans, good nutrition is essential for bee health by allowing them to fend off all kinds of health threats. Anything that indicates that the quality of their food is declining is worrisome."
So honey bees--which pollinate about one-third of the food we eat--are still in trouble.
And so, it appears, are we.
Better, says retired Extension apiculturist Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology, who today published the last edition of his newsletter, from the UC Apiaries. Last? "Or, it's the last edition I'm solely responsible for."
Mussen retired in June after 38 years of service. Now it's "Welcome, Elina Lastro," who joined the department this week.
"The summary data from this spring's suvey on winter colony loss is available for review on beeinformed.org, the public's entry to information from the Bee Informed Parnership (BIP)," Mussen wrote. "Since it is called winter loss, it does not necessarily record the total losses in many operations because colonies are lost over the entire year, picking up considerably in fall and winter. Until recently the summer losses, often replaced using colony splits, were unreported. The good news is that the national average loss declined to 20.7 percent, the best in about a decade. Not many beekeepers blamed CCD (no logical explanation) for their losses, but mites and starvation were leading explanations."
Mussen pointed out that "since the data was listed by state averages, I wondered if that data were placed on a map of the U.S., could we see some sort of regional patterns." So, he did just that.
"Using colored pencils and scribbling, I colored like a kindergartner (or at least like I did in kindergarten and still do.), I did not see much of a pattern that stuck out. The states with the highest average losses (over 60 percent) did form a cluster (Illinois, Indiana and Michigan). The states with losses in the 50 percent range were all east of the Mississippi River: Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio, West Virginia, New York and New Hampshire. States with losses in the 40 percent range were spread equally all over the country: Oregon, Arizona, Nebraska, Texas, Minnesota, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Vermont and Connecticut.
"States with losses in the 30 percent range filled in a swath of states just south of the 50 and 60 percent losses, as well as Washington, Utah, South Dakota, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Maine. States with losses in the 20 percent range included seven of our southeastern states: Montana, Colorado, New Mexico, and Kansas. California, Idaho, Oklahoma and Hawaii showed state average losses below 20 percent."
"How are the bees doing?"
That's the question beekeepers are asked all year.
Well, today the annual survey conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Apiary Inspectors of America (AIA) answered that question.
The response? Roughly the same.
Total losses from honey bee colonies nationwide amounted to 30 percent from all causes for the 2010/2011 winter.
That's about the same for the past four years:
2009/2010: 34 percent
2008/2009: 29 percent
2007/2008: 36 percent
2006/2007: 32 percent
"The lack of increase in losses is marginally encouraging in the sense that the problem does not appear to be getting worse for honey bees and beekeepers," entomologist Jeff Pettis said in a news release issued today by the USDA's Agricultural Research Service. Pettis leads the Bee Research Laboratory, Beltsville, Md., the chief scientific research agency of USDA.
Colony collapse disorder (CCD), first reported in 2006 by Pennsylvania beekeeper (Dave Hackenberg) overwintering his bees in Florida, is still with us. CCD is a mysterious phenomenon characterized by adult bees abandoning the hive, leaving behind the queen bee, food stores and immature brood. The worker bees leave. Nobody knows where they go. There are no dead bees to examine.
According to the ARS news release, the beekeepers who reported colony losses with "no dead bodies present" also reported higher average colony losses (61 percent) "compared to beekeepers who lost colonies but did not report the absence of dead bees (34 percent in losses)."
Some 5,572 beekeepers responded to the survey, which covered autumn to spring--the period from October 2010 to April 2011. Together these 5,572 beekeepers manage more than 15 percent of the 2.68 million colonies in the U.S.
What's interesting is that the beekeepers said they felt losses of 13 percent would be "economically acceptable." However, "61 percent of responding beekeepers reported having losses greater than this," according to the ARS press release.
So, the losses are still not economically acceptable, but the lack of increase is "marginally encouraging."
Bottom line: roughly the same.