In the past few years, farmers, scientists, and conservationists have reported massive declines in honeybee populations. Here in central New York, Teresa Vanek of Red Tail Farm says that two thirds of her bees colonies died two years ago (Teresa also wrote about her bees in Edible Finger Lakes summer 2008). The die-off continue, as researchers try to determine its cause.
In 1999, I reported that more than half of the managed honeybee colonies in the US had been lost in the previous 50 years and that the loss had accelerated in the 1990s. This is not trivial: the value of all pollination to U.S. agriculture is estimated at $40 billion per year, when livestock feed crops are included.
Experts have debated the cause of the declines, naming the most recent die-offs with the catch-all "Colony Collapse Disorder." Experts say that many factors are at work, such as viral, bacterial, and fungal diseases. Parasitic mites caused the losses at Red Tail Farm.
"There is probably a connection to the heavy pesticide use on commercial plantings and colony collapse disorder," says Teresa. "Another theory we think carries some weight is that by moving the bees between monoculture crop systems you impose two major stresses on them -- the stress of the moving itself and the stress of a diet that is not sufficiently diverse to keep up their immunity." At Red Tail Farm, bees are not moved and the farm employs organic methods.
Teresa's views are supported by experts. One study found an average of six different pesticides in each sample of pollen examined by researchers. A movie about the decline, The Vanishing of the Bees (trailer below), also blames pesticides. The way to help bees, says Marla Spivak, a professor of entomology at the University of Minnesota, is to plant lots of diverse flowers for bees and reduce pesticide use.
Another stress hit this past summer. "Honey production on our farm and in NY in general is down this summer because of the cool wet weather in June and July," says Teresa. "We didn't harvest any summer honey this year, only spring and fall."
The pollinator decline problem, from PBS (~3 minutes):
Why bees are important to crops, from PBS (~8 minutes):
A video trailer for the movie The Vanishing of the Bees (~6 minutes):