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US Beekeepers Are Losing a Record Number of Managed Honey Bee Colonies

Researchers and beekeepers say pests, hurricanes, development and other risk factors are threatening the colonies, which do so much more than produce honey.

Nathalie Vega | MediaLab@FAU

Nov 1, 2023

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – If you live near any lively area with at least a few colorful flowers, chances are you’ve seen the fuzzy black and yellow stripes and heard the gentle buzz of honey bees during pollination.

These busy bees are crucial for the health of the planet, but U.S. honey bee populations have struggled over the years, with honey bee hives recently reaching their second highest year of winter loss from 2022 to 2023, according to a survey measuring managed honey bee colony losses in the U.S., organized by the Bee Informed Partnership in collaboration with the Bee Lab at Auburn University and the Bee Lab at University of Maryland.

The survey also identifies risk factors and protective measures.

Between April 1, 2022 and April 1, 2023, US beekeepers lost an estimated 48.2% of their managed honey bee colonies, researchers found.

Researchers and beekeepers suggest some threats that contribute to bee losses are pests, extreme weather, development and harmful chemicals.

“Development will absolutely ruin the bees,” said Brendhan Horne, a beekeeper at Bee Barf Apiaries in West Palm Beach, Florida. Horne explained that development will damage bees more than climate change and hurricanes.

According to Horne, development is one of the biggest contributing factors allowing his business to function, but it also comes with challenges to his work.

“The more homes there are, the more hives I have to remove from those homes,” he said. “When I get those hives, I have to be able to keep them in an area where I can keep them fed, where I can keep them sustained, and that becomes harder and harder because there are less and less farms to do that with.”

2023 may be the worst year for U.S. bee populations, according to Peggy Macmahon, a beekeeper and owner of Alysian Apiaries, located in Osteen, Florida.

Macmahon said lawn products pose a threat to these bees, particularly neonicotinoids, insecticides that affect insects’ central nervous system, leading to paralysis and death, according to the European Commission. Macmahon said when bees come into contact with these products, they bring them back into their hives with pollen or nectar, and that causes the colony to collapse.

She believes the severity of the situation is likely tied to COVID-19.

“People went a little crazy with cleaning, and I think that did a lot,” she said.

Macmahon said bald-faced hornets have also threatened the bees in her area. One of those hornets could take out 30 bees in less than a week. Macmahon has seen yellow-faced hornets in her area twice.

“In one night, they’ll take down three whole hives,” she said.

Macmahon explained that she is now down to 10 hives, even though she had hundreds two years ago.

Varroa destructor, an ectoparasite, is one of the pests hurting the Western honey bee species Apis mellifera by feeding on their fat body tissue.

“In the United States, primarily, Varroa destructor is public enemy number one for our bees,” said Natalie Parkell, an education and training specialist and the extension program coordinator for the University of Florida’s Honey Bee Research and Extension Laboratory in Gainesville. Parkell explained researchers and beekeepers are doing better at tackling the honey bee losses and replacing lost colonies with other colonies, but the statistical change is in bee species that are pollinators and that are not managed by human intervention, such as bumble bees or carpenter bees.

“The native bees are the ones that are declining and are showing greater decreases year after year,” said Parkell. 

She added that habitat loss due to development is a big threat to the bees, as their food sources are dwindling. The bees also face a risk of exposure to pesticides and chemicals.

Hurricane season can also pose significant threats to bees. Big storms can cause colonies to flood and strong winds can damage and destroy some of the bees’ most essential resources. According to Parkell, the winds that come with big storms can strip away flowers from the fields bees use for pollination.

Hurricanes not only affect the flowers, however. They can also destroy the beehives themselves. Hurricane Ian, for example, destroyed up to 300,000 beehives, according to the Florida State Beekeepers Association.

When hurricanes flood the land, sometimes the water rises, blocking hive entrances and killing many bees, according to Scott Macmahon, Peggy Macmahon’s husband and partner beekeeper in Alysian Apiaries. However, he added that beekeepers can protect the bees by moving them to higher ground and strapping down the hives so they do not blow over in the winds.

“There are ways to mitigate the damages, but it does take a lot of work,” Macmahon said.

He also said bees have suffered from Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon first reported in 2006.

Colony Collapse Disorder refers to when most worker bees in a colony disappear, leaving a queen behind, along with food and some nurse bees to care for the queen and for the immature bees.

According to Macmahon, varroa mites also cause a lot of different problems with the bees. The mites suck on the bees and drain their energy, he said. It is something that beekeepers always try to stay on top of by treating their bees with different chemicals.

Macmahon said beekeepers cannot get rid of the mites, but they can keep them down to a minimum.

“They’re a lot like fleas on dogs,” Macmahon said.

If the U.S. continues to lose honey bees, this could affect products like honey and beeswax, and it could also affect the crops the bees pollinate. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, bee pollination accounts for about $15 billion in added crop value.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, honey bees pollinate over 130 types of fruits, nuts and vegetables.

However, some beekeepers have already witnessed big changes in bee populations over the years.

“If you look 20 years back, you can see a big difference,” said Victor Gonzalez, a professional beekeeper and owner of Florida Bee Rescue, a live bee removal and safe swarm removal company in South Florida, serving Miami Dade, Florida Keys and Broward.

According to Gonzalez, wild colonies do not receive the attention that beekeepers’ colonies do, and the managed colonies will have better lives in the long term because beekeepers provide for their needs.

This is certainly the case for Peggy Macmahon, who has worked with bees for 30 years.

“To me, they’re actually families, colonies,” she said, “and that’s how I treat them.”

Brendhan Horne, a beekeeper at Bee Barf Apiaries in West Palm Beach tends to his colonies. (Photos: Nathalie Vega)

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