By Brandon Keim
Nearly one in three commercial honeybee colonies in the United States died or disappeared last winter, an unsustainable decline that threatens the nation’s food supply.
Multiple factors — pesticides, fungicides, parasites, viruses and malnutrition — are believed to cause the losses, which were officially announced today by a consortium of academic researchers, beekeepers and Department of Agriculture scientists.
“We’re getting closer and closer to the point where we don’t have enough bees in this country to meet pollination demands,” said entomologist Dennis vanEngelstorp of the University of Maryland, who led the survey documenting the declines.
Beekeepers lost 31 percent of their colonies in late 2012 and early 2013, roughly double what’s considered acceptable attrition through natural causes. The losses are in keeping with rates documented since 2006, when beekeeper concerns prompted the first nationwide survey of honeybee health. Hopes raised by drop in rates of loss to 22 percent in 2011-2012 were wiped out by the new numbers.
The honeybee shortage nearly came to a head in March in California, when there were barely enough bees to pollinate the almond crop.
Had the weather not been ideal, the almonds would have gone unpollinated — a taste, as it were, of a future in which honeybee problems are not solved.
“If we want to grow fruits and nuts and berries, this is important,” said vanEngelstorp. “One in every three bites [of food consumed in the U.S.] is directly or indirectly pollinated by bees.”
Scientists have raced to explain the losses, which fall into different categories. Some result from what’s called colony collapse disorder, a malady first reported in 2006 in which honeybees abandon their hives and vanish. Colony collapse disorder, or CCD, subsequently became a public shorthand for describing bee calamities.