According to BIP, which works in collaboration with both the Apiary Inspectors of America (AIA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), U.S. beekeepers on average lost more than 45 percent of their colonies during the 2012/2013 winter season, a 78.2 percent jump in losses over the previous season. And overall, more than 70 percent of respondents, most of whom were backyard beekeepers, experienced losses beyond the 15 percent "acceptable" threshold, illustrating a monumental problem not only for bee survival but also for the American food supply.
Since 2006, total bee colony losses have hovered around 30 percent, sometimes a little higher and sometimes a little lower. And the situation was believed by some to be improving when the overall percentage of colony losses declined sharply during the 2011/2012 winter season by almost 10 percent. But now that the death toll has jumped once again beyond the 30 percent mark, many are worried that this year-after-year compounded increase will very soon make it impossible for grow enough food.
"We're getting closer and closer to the point where we don't have enough bees in this country to meet pollination demands," says Dennis vanEngelstorp, an entomologist at the University of Maryland who led the survey. "If we want to grow fruits and nuts and berries, this is important. One in every three bites [of food consumed in the U.S.] is directly or indirectly pollinated by bees."
Colony Collapse Disorder no longer a primary cause of bee losses - bees are just dying
In previous years, a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, was believed to be the primary cause of bee losses around the world. The general consensus is that bees affected by CCD simply disappear from their hives for no apparent reason. According to the USDA, CCD-stricken hives typically still have a queen, but experience anywhere from a 30 to 90 percent loss on adult worker bees, whose bodies are never found.
CCD is still highly problematic today, no doubt. But experts increasingly say it is no longer the primary cause of bee losses that it was once believed to be. In Western Europe, for instance, there have been very few documented cases of true CCD, and yet honeybee losses there have remained high just as they have in many other parts of the world, which points to other causes.
"Even if CCD went away, we'd still have tremendous losses," entomologist Diana Cox-Foster from Pennsylvania State University (PSU) is quoted as saying by Wired.com about the epidemic. "CCD losses are like the straw that breaks the camel's back. The system has many other issues."
Neonicotinoids are also highly problematic, but so are the hundreds of other pesticides being found in honeybee hives
So what else is causing bees to die? As many have reported recently, the widespread use of neonicotinoid pesticides on commercial food crops is also to blame. Neonicotinoids are so dangerous, in fact, that the European Union recently banned them, at least for two years, pending further safety studies. EU officials determined earlier in the year that this particular class of chemicals poisons bees at an alarming rate and ultimately leads to their untimely deaths, en masse.
And yet at the same time, there are hundreds of other chemicals used in conventional agriculture that are also responsible for poisoning bees, admit experts. Samples of wax taken from various hives have demonstrated high levels of all sorts of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides - one study published in the open-access journal PLoS ONE back in 2010 found more than 120 different types of crop chemicals in the wax and pollen collected from hundreds of different hive samples.
"I worry that the neonicotinoid attention is distracting from the other pesticides that have clear effects, and might even have stronger effects," says vanEngelstorp. "Things like fungicides are completely unregulated for bees. I think we need to keep the pesticide investigation broader."
Another major factor affecting bees includes monoculture crop systems that deprive bees of the diversity of plants they need for healthy survival and foraging. Many of these monoculture systems are also planted with genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), which have been shown to damage the gastrointestinal tracts of bees and make them more prone to viruses and disease.
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