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New survey provides more buzz on bees

Workers at Dakota Honey LLP, Larimore, ND, clean beehive boxes from the prior season in anticipation of summer honey production on Tuesday, May 10, 2016. (Nick Nelson/Forum News Service)

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- The federal government and U.S. beekeepers now know a little more about the number of honeybee operations nationwide. The newly released, first-of-their-kind statistics, which help set a baseline, should be of more value later when new quarterly and annual numbers are available.

For now, what's known is that the number of U.S. colonies, at operations with five or more colonies, totaled 2.59 million on Jan. 1, down 8 percent from 2.87 million a year earlier, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

NASS surveyed beekeepers in December 2015 and January 2016 on the number of colonies, colonies lost, colonies added and colonies affected by stress. The survey is at least partly in response to Colony Collapse Disorder, which is ravaging colonies nationwide.

The new survey, which supplements an existing USDA survey on honey production, price and stocks, will be more useful in the future when more numbers are available, says Bonnie Woodworth, a Halliday, N.D., beekeeper and director at large of the state Beekeepers Association.

"In a year, it will be more evident what it (survey results) means," she says.

North Dakota, the nation's leading honey producer, bucked the national trend by adding colonies, rising from 57,000 on Jan. 1, 2015, to 82,000 on Jan. 1, 2016.

That reflects North Dakota beekeepers' efforts to build up their operations and, possibly, the growing number of out-of-state beekeepers bringing bees to the state, Woodworth says.

In any case, many North Dakota bees are taken to warm-weather states during the winter, so early January numbers might not give a fully accurate picture, she says.

In July through September 2015, for instance, North Dakota has as many as 500,000 colonies, according to the survey.

"It makes a huge difference when you count them (colonies)," Woodworth says.

A separate survey, released this week by Bee Informed Partnership, found that U.S. beekeepers reported losing 44.1 percent of their colonies from April 2015 to April 2016.

That survey reflects losses at small-scale operations, which typically suffer higher losses than large commercial ones and can skew the overall loss rate, Woodworth says.

The Bee Informed Partnership is a collaborative effort that includes research labs and universities. It's supported by the United States Department of Agriculture and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Major challenges

Honey bee operations of all sizes are threatened by Colony Collapse Disorder. The syndrome, for which no scientific cause has been proven, is defined as a dead colony with no adult bees or dead bee bodies, but with a live queen and honey/immature bees still present, USDA says.

Bees and beekeepers face other challenges, too, including new pathogens, new parasites and pesticides.

Bees and other pollinators -- animals that help plants reproduce -- are crucial to agriculture and the environment. Honey bee pollination adds more than $15 billion in value to crops annually, USDA says.

In 2014, President Obama directed a task force to create a national strategy to promote the health of honey bees. The new NASS survey is part of that effort.