A pair of announcements issued last week by the USDA and the Environmental Protection Agency advised the public of imminent changes to each agency’s programs and established protocols that had been enacted as efforts to support a steadily declining population of honeybees. According to data from the USDA, the honeybee population has fallen from 6 million hives in 1947 to 2.4 million hives in 2008.
An initial report announcing “the indefinite suspension” of the annual Honeybee Colonies report was issued by the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service on July 1. The report cited “budget shortfall” as the determining factor for the program cut.
The announcement drew criticism and also raised suspicions regarding the reason cited to suspend the program.
Keith Tignor, Virginia state apiarist, pointed out that similar surveys will be continuing both at the state and national levels.
Beekeepers are asked to “participate in winter loss and management surveys through BeeInformed Partnership,” Tignor said. “Apiarists are regularly in contact with beekeepers regarding the status of colony health and productivity.”
Tignor explained that data from these sources may be infrequent or based on beekeepers recalling conditions and hive numbers from months to a year before the survey.
The USDA honeybee colony survey provided a more frequent look into the health and conditions of beehives across the U.S. It provided beekeepers with information on condidtion from season to season.
“Many of the survey participants provided information over several years providing continuity both in how the data was collected as well as sources for the information,” Tignor said.
Mike Wallace, the communications officer for Tignor’s office, explained that data collection will continue, but on the local level. There is an extensive network of members belonging to the Virginia Beekeeper’s Association. It is the members of these various groups that contribute the data that is compiled for the annual report the USDA produced and released.
“It was nice to have that annual report,” Wallace said.
The USDA survey program was initiated in the summer of 2015.
It collected data on the number of honeybees by state each calendar quarter.
The survey also counted those lost to a phenomenon now known as Colony Collapse Disorder, which is “decimating honeybee populations,” a USDA report said.
An extensive amount of scientific research has gone into discovering the cause of CCD since its existence was uncovered.
EPA records reveal that during the winter of 2006-2007, a number of beekeepers reported an unusually high number of losses — up to 90% of their hives. Also, up to half of the colonies lost “demonstrated symptoms inconsistent with any known causes of honeybee death,” the report said.
As recently as last winter, studies have estimated that as much as 40% of all bee colonies did not survive. Additionally, the numbers currently associated with the surviving bee population have been described as “unsustainable.”
Today, there is no definitive single cause of CCD known. There are precursor conditions or symptoms of CCD that are recognizable, according to reports by the USDA and the EPA, such as a sudden loss of a colony’s worker bee population with very few dead bees found near the colony.
The queen and brood remained, and the colonies had “relatively abundant” honey and pollen reserves.
Without a force of worker bees to care for the queen and young, the hive will eventually die.
“A specific cause for CCD has not been identified,” Tignor said. “Several contributing factors have been identified in honeybee colonies displaying this condition. Occurrence of Nosema (microsporidia in adult workers) and viruses transmitted by Varroamites are commonly colonies displaying CCD.”
Other factors believed to be contributing to CCD include nutrition, food resources, environmental conditions and pesticides.
Proper beehive management and suppression of these stressors is recommended for avoiding CCD.
Research has determined that the Varroa mite has done considerable damage to the honeybee population since its introduction in Florida in the mid-1980s. The mite is now widespread across Virginia since first discovered in 1991. Managed hives can be successfully treated for mite infestations if the symptoms are detected early enough.
The western honeybee, one of seven subspecies of the European honeybee or Apis mellifera, is the primary honeybee pollinator in the U.S. It is a productive and prolific bee. Scientific research has determined that a single hive of honeybees can pollinate up to 300 million flowers in a single day. It is estimated that honeybees pollinate up to one-third of all of the crops we eat in the U.S.
The USDA maintains that today, managed colonies of honeybees are an asset responsible for increasing both crop yield and quality estimated in the range of $15 billion.
Research has also determined that a group of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, often used in large scale agricultural applications are known to be toxic — in some cases highly toxic — to bees. Due to the toxicity to bees and to other pollinators such as butterflies, the Obama administration severely limited their use to specific federally controlled lands
As a result, the use of neonicotinoid-based pesticides has been banned in several countries.
Seven days after the USDA’s announcement to suspend the bee tracking program, the EPA announced that it was conducting a review of the pesticide sulfoxaflor, and the next day announced its intention to not only reinstate the use of the pesticide across its original acreage, but to expand its use area.
A review of the USDA’s budget shows that the Honeybee Colony Survey and other programs that are under review for possible cut or elimination fall under the title “Discretionary Spending.” Typically, most of the conservation programs that the USDA budgets for fall under this title. Discretionary spending makes up the bottom 1% of the current budget, originally $22.6 billion. The USDA has been directed to find and implement $4.7 billion in discretionary spending cuts, reducing the total to $17.9 billion.
This story has been updated.