- Associated Press - Saturday, June 13, 2015

WRENTHAM, Mass. (AP) - George Labonte’s honeybees thrived for years, bucking a national trend that saw a steady decline of the bee population.

Then last year, Labonte, 34, a Plainville resident and Wrentham police lieutenant, lost about 25 percent of the bees he manages with his parents in Wrentham.

Together, they kept about 25 hives but sold some and combined others to make stronger hives.

Then, they lost some bees, which reduced the number of hives to 14. This year, they lost another three hives.

Labonte- who noted his losses typically are less than the national average -is far from alone. The decline of the nation’s honeybee population apparently worsened last year.

An annual survey released last month by the Bee Informed Partnership reported that about 5,000 beekeepers reported losing 42.1 percent of their colonies in the 12-month period that ended in April.

It’s the second-highest loss recorded since year-round surveys began in 2010, and is much greater than the 34.2 percent loss reported for the same period from 2013 to 2014.

Though steep, the decline in population is different from colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon in which bees desert their hives and die en mass that has plagued beekeepers for decades.

The survey noted that commercial beekeepers were consistently losing greater numbers of colonies over the summer months than over the winter months, with the opposite seeming to be true for small-scale beekeepers.

Anne Averill, a professor of entomology at the Department of Environmental Conservation at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, said the number of summer deaths were unsurprising, given that many commercial beekeepers- but not all -rent out their bees for pollination and move them around to different areas.

“It’s a lot of stress to move around,” she said.

Besides that stress, honeybees are confronted with poor nutrition due to a lack of good floral resources, parasites and pathogens- including the varroa mite -and pesticides.

“It’s a lot of stressors,” she said.

While no one knows for sure what is causing the die off, addressing even one of the factors could help stabilize and revitalize the population, Averill said.

In Plainville, Labonte believes mites and poor nutrition were the culprits behind the loss of his three hives this year. Two were lost in the cold winter months and Labonte believes they likely starved to death, but the third died later than expected.

When he checked on it in March, there was still a colony, but by April it had died, leading Labonte to the conclusion that mites could have been to blame, despite having treated the hive to protect against mites in the fall.

Averill said she doesn’t believe a phenomenon called colony collapse disorder- in which bees desert their hives and die en mass -that affected the nation in previous years is at play in honeybee deaths anymore.

“It’s not that they die suddenly, it’s this steady decline,” she said. “Now, what people are seeing is a steady decline in the health of the hive.”

Locally, while some backyard beekeepers were hit hard, others escaped the year with few losses.

In Dighton, Wayne Andrews, 63, said it was pesticides that got hold of his bee population. Out of his 10 hives- each containing 70,000 to 80,000 bees -Andrews lost eight of them this year and is looking to move his bees out of Dighton and into a safer habitat.

Andrews participated in the Bee Informed Partnership’s survey and said it was “a really good survey” because it asks very specific questions to track how and when bees are dying, as well as addressing the cause.

Andrews said many of the bee deaths in the area he was aware of stemmed from corn pesticide spraying, but noted bees suffer from other stressors like the harsh winter. With this last especially cold and snowy winter, bees burned through their honey supply quickly and Andrews said he knows many bees starved.

“Bees are certainly under stress in the U.S.,” he said.

While he was hit this year, Andrews, who has been keeping bees for decades, said Bristol County seems to be making good progress overall and local beekeepers are losing less of their population than in years past.

“This is one of our best years in a long time,” he said. “It’s been a horrendous few years before this.”

In North Attleboro, Jodi Greenleaf, 45, a King Philip Regional High School teacher, has been keeping bees for the past 13 years- despite a bee allergy -but limits it to just one hive.

This winter, Greenleaf feared she had lost the entire colony after discovering the entire bottom of the hive had been engulfed in water and then frozen over, trapping some and freezing out others who had left the hive and were unable to get back in.

“There were dead bees everywhere,” she said. “I figured they were goners. All I saw were dead bees.”

While she did lose some, the hive has rebounded well and she ended up giving away the replacement bees she had ordered to another local beekeeper.

Over the years, she’s lost her entire colony and had to start over three times, and said she’s had problems with mites in the past.

John Grace, 37, of Raynham lost an entire hive- about a third of his population -in the late fall. On a warmer November day, the bees were buzzing around all but one of the hives. When he looked in, they were all dead.

Grace, who has been keeping bees for about three years, believes mites were to blame for the loss of his hive- his first loss -though he said he treated the hive for mites and the two next to it survived.

Grace also tends to the hives at a Raynham farm, and said a similar problem with mites killed off bees there.

“We’re seeing a lot more of it,” he said.

On the heels of the Bee Informed Partnership survey results, the White House outlined a plan to help revive the struggling honeybee and monarch butterfly populations, largely by expanding the number of acres dedicated to plants that are critical to their survival.

“Pollinating animals do not recognize human-drawn boundaries,” the report said. “They make use of food and habitat anywhere it is found, whether on national park land, a roadside strip, the edge of an agricultural field or a schoolyard garden. Therefore, no single organization, federal or private, can independently shoulder the burden of helping pollinators.”

The plan outlines encouraging the planting of pollinator gardens at schools and on federal lands, with the goal of cutting annual honeybee losses to 15 percent of colonies- which was roughly the average in previous decades -by 2025.

Halting the slide of honeybee deaths and even trying to reverse the trend is critical, even if the population isn’t in danger of disappearing entirely, Averill said.

“Extinction is not a possibility, at least not in our time,” she said.

Still, crops ranging from fruits and vegetables to nuts- particularly almonds -need the pollination from bees.

“It would affect us diet-wise,” she said.

With a lower population of bees, pollination would suffer and farmers would need to look at more expensive alternatives, such as hand pollination, which would drive up food costs and potentially even make some foods unavailable.


Information from: The (Attleboro, Mass.) Sun Chronicle, https://www.thesunchronicle.com

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