Report on Honeybee Decline Cites a Mess of Factors

A new government report on the decline of honeybee colonies in the U.S. stresses that no single cause is responsible for the spiraling losses. Instead, it's a complex mess of factors that includes exposure to pesticides, lack of food source for the bees and a variety of pests and pathogens.


Honeybee colonies are dying at a rate of 30 percent a year, according to a new government report. Photo by Flickr Creative Commons/ Cygnus921.

A new government report on the decline of honeybee colonies in the U.S. stresses that no single cause is responsible for the spiraling losses. Instead, it's a complex mess of factors that includes exposure to pesticides, lack of food source for the bees and a variety of pests and pathogens. The report was released jointly by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the EPA on Thursday.


"There is no quick fix," said May Berenbaum, head of the entomology department at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign during a press conference. "Patching one hole in a boat that leaks from everywhere isn't going to stop it from sinking."

And whereas Europe announced efforts this week to ban a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, considered by many to be a critical culprit in honeybee deaths, the U.S. has taken no such steps.

"There are non-trivial costs to society if we get this wrong," said Jim Jones of the EPA, when asked if the U.S. planned to take steps to ban the pesticides. "As a matter of policy, we let science lead our regulatory decision making. We want to make sure we make accurate and appropriate decisions."

Honeybees pollinate almonds, blueberries, strawberries, broccoli, soybeans and alfalfa seed. Some $20 to 30 billion of U.S. agricultural production is dependent on honeybee pollination, according to Sonny Ramaswamy, director of the USDA's National Institute of Food and Agriculture. And colonies are dying at a rate of 30 percent a year, according to the report.

There are also eight to 10 common viruses, fungal pathogens, bacterial pathogens and mites, said Michelle Flenniken, a microbiologist and professor at Montana State University, who studies honeybee pathogens.

"Mites are a pathogen themselves," she said. "Young mites eat the blood of developing honeybee larvae and cause damage to the larva. They also bite the bee and transmit viruses." The report calls the parasitic mite Varroa destructor "the single most detrimental pest of honey bees."

It's been seven years now since the massive honeybee die off began. But honeybee colonies have been in a gradual decline for decades. The population has dropped from 6 million in 1947 to 3 million in 1990 and stands at about 2.5 million today. One single crop, almonds in California, now require over 60 percent of all managed colonies.

Large areas that specialize in one agricultural crop like corn or almonds can pose a risk to the insects by providing a limited food source, especially when that source is contaminated by pesticides, said Zac Browning, a fourth-generation commercial beekeeper. Some groups like Project Apis m, provide free crop mixes to farmers to provide bees with food to eat when the almonds aren't growing. But in the arid Central Valley of California, water too is an issue, and may be preventing farmers from planting additional ground cover, Flenniken points out.

Two years ago, we aired this report on the honeybee decline by NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels. He talked to beekeepers who are feeling the brunt of the decline and scientists using honeybee DNA to investigate viruses, parasites and bacteria.

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