Theories abound to explain region’s decline in bees

Staff Writer

(June 2, 2015) Maryland and Delaware lost more than 60 percent of their honeybee colonies over the last year — one of the worst loss rates in the country, a recent USDA survey shows.
What’s causing the declines, to put it lightly, is up for debate.
Some experts say it’s consumer misuse and overuse of pesticides. Others say agriculture is to blame. Some point to climate change or habitat loss.
It’s most likely a number of factors, said Toni Burnham, president of the Maryland Beekeepers Association.
She points to introduced pests, the seasonal extremes of Delmarva weather and pesticide use as well.
“We’re just having a much, much harder time keeping them alive,” she said. “Beekeeping is kind of gnarly in the Mid-Atlantic. It’s not an easy place to keep bees.”
A map of last year’s colony losses suggests the same.
A number of states with the most severe percentages of colony loss are clustered in the Northeast.
Much of the Midwest, Oklahoma and Florida also suffered losses of more than 50 percent. Hawaii had the lowest percentage of annual colony loss at about 14 percent.
Nationally, the survey of about 5,000 beekeepers shows about 42 percent of colonies were lost over a 12-month period that ended in April, up from about 34 percent lost in the previous 12-month period.
It also marked the first time that summer bee die-offs exceeded winter losses, which is when beekeepers expect most of their colony losses in even healthy years.
Many environmentalists point to the use of agricultural pesticide as a main culprit of bee losses, but Burnham said she points the finger more harshly at consumers.
“Consumers are worse,” she said. “Consumers are well-known to misuse and overuse pesticides. I’m not a big fan of agricultural pesticides, but those people at least read the label.”
If you ask Bear, Del., beekeeper Edward Reed, he blames cell phone signals.
Reed said he had a great year of beekeeping without die-offs beyond what his colonies typically lose over the winter.
He acknowledged that fellow Delaware beekeepers weren’t as lucky for the most part.
“Really, I think a lot of it — not 100 percent — is due to cell phones,” he said.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has ruled out cell phones, but Reed isn’t alone in singling them out.
They’re a common subject of speculation online.
Most of the bee colonies kept in Maryland are not for commercial use, Burnham said.
The problems hobbyists face keeping bees runs the gamut, said Larry Marling, owner of Eco Honeybees, a hive sales and service company in Falls Church, Va.
“Colony collapse disorder is not from one thing,” he said. “There’s a dozen reasons why a colony will collapse.”
Habitat loss that leads to a lack of forage is a major problem, he said.
He pointed to the ever-expanding Washington metro area and the type of residential development that lacks bee-friendly foliage such as wildflowers and fruit trees.
“They’re putting in grassy lawns,” he said. “They’re putting in generic shrubs and trees. That’s a desert for a bee.”
The climate’s also changed, pushing forward bees’ nectar flow season — a two-month period in the Delmarva region when there’s enough nectar for bees to collect and store — by a month, Burnham said.
So, after increasingly harsh winters, bees have less time to reproduce and grow the hive and fewer troops to collect enough nectar to sustain the hive at its usual peak.
The hive, therefore, grows weaker.
“Our members are experiencing extraordinary losses, including beekeepers who have a lot of experience,” she said. “When you’re talking about guys who have been at this for decades — and they’re seeing it too — that’s a really scary movie.”