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June 9, 2013

Pollinators in peril

You may have heard that honey bees have been disappearing and that the Department of Agriculture still doesn’t quite know why. The conclusions of a recent USDA report pointed to a multitude of causes of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) including the Verroa Mite, pesticide residues, several viruses and a bacterial disease called foulbrood.

Since CCD is a combination of symptoms, it is difficult to put the blame on any one cause. One of the problems with determining a cause is that the main symptom of CCD is finding few or no adult honey bees present in the hive. There is often a live queen, honey in the combs and immature bees in the hive, but no dead honey bee bodies to be found. Varroa mites, a virus-transmitting parasite of honey bees, have frequently been found in hives hit by CCD.

Why is this of such concern? Honey bees and other pollinators are essential to farmers for the production of agricultural crops from apples to zucchini. The USDA estimates that honey bees help pollinate crops worth more than $200 billion per year. Just honey alone had a value of $261 million in 2011.

According to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, in 2011 New York had about 49,000 colonies that produced 56 pounds of honey each with a value of $5.378 million. Honey prices climbed to record highs in 2012 making for an even bigger impact.

Even with such a demand for bees as pollinators and record-high honey prices, CCD has made it extremely difficult for commercial beekeepers to stay in business. Before CCD was first noticed in 2006, beekeepers experienced normal annual losses of 10 to 15 percent of their hives, but in recent years that number has been 28 percent to 38 percent of all commercial hives. On average, US beekeepers lost 45 percent of their colonies this past year with local reports of losses of up to 65 percent of all colonies being affected by CCD.

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