Honeybee populations have been declining steadily despite the fact that they are bred in hives across the United States.
According to a press release detailing the economic challenge posed by declining pollinator populations, the 6 million beehives in the 1960s have dwindled to 2.5 million beehives currently.
Honeybees are responsible for $15 billion of the $24 billion that pollinators give to the United States economy, and beehive colony loss rates have risen from between 10 and 15 percent to 30 percent. This past winter, the loss was estimated at 23 percent, which is above the historical average.
Bee colonies cost approximately $200 to replace, and the loss of bee colonies is putting commercial beekeeping in jeopardy.
Honeybees face threats from natural and manmade sources.
“The natural factors are just like most anything else — too much rain, drought or a (late) freeze,” explained Wade Stiltner, a West Virginia Department of Agriculture apiary inspector.
Stiltner inspects beekeepers’ hives across the state, and he has noticed a decline in honeybee populations. During inspections, Stiltner has seen the losses taken on by beekeepers and in the wild.
“On my observations alone ... I do not know of any wild bees. I know that there are bees that get in trees, and they escaped from a beekeeper,” Stiltner said. “I just pulled out from an apiary I just inspected for a man who has nine (bee) colonies. Seven of those colonies have swarmed this year.”
The swarmed bees moved from a manmade bee colony and settled in the woods.
“Most of the time, these bees live three to four years and they pass the mites ... in the woods and they perish,” Stiltner said.
Many mites that have come into the country are invasive species. According to West Virginia University professor Dr. Jim Amrine, these mites caused the huge losses for beekeepers in the mid-1980s and the early 1990s.
In 1984 Acarapis woodi, mites that affect the tracheal tubes of bees, was introduced to the United States.
“Each time they reported in the news, these tracheal mites showed up in Florida and they were trying to keep it from spreading. That was in ’84, ’85,” he said. “By ’87, (tracheal mites) were in West Virginia.”
An outbreak of Varroa destructor came next.
“Around ’94, ’95, we had epidemics where virtually all the honeybees were killed,” Amrine said. “All the honeybeekeepers in this area lost every single one of their hives.”
Hive beetles, a species from South Africa, was introduced in Florida.
According to Amrine, the beetle lays eggs in the hives. These eggs hatch and the hatchlings eat the juvenile bees and honey, then leave slime behind in the hive.
Nosema ceranae is a gut parasite that affects bees.
“I have a friend who lost half of his colonies last year,” Amrine said. “His losses were around 4,000 beehives; he had 8,000 (colonies).”