Honeybee winter survival rates improved, but not by much

  • Stephanie Green opens one of her beehives at her home in Hopkinton on Friday. Elizabeth Frantz photos / Monitor staff

  • Stephanie Green tends to one of her beehives at her home in Hopkinton on Friday, June 22, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Honeybees move in and out of their hive at Stephanie Green’s apiary at her home in Hopkinton on Friday. Elizabeth Frantz

  • Green tends to one of her beehives at her home in Hopkinton on Friday.

  • Worker bees obscure part of a raised honey comb at Stephanie Green's apiary at her home in Hopkinton on Friday, June 22, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 6/23/2018 9:18:42 PM

There’s good news in New Hampshire’s beekeeping world: The state’s winter hive mortality rates appear to be dropping, according to local and national data.

The bad news? The state is still losing well over 50 percent of its honeybees, and pinpointing a cause remains elusive.

New Hampshire lost 58 percent of its hives this winter, a 7-percent decrease from last winter’s loss, according to the New Hampshire Beekeeper Association’s latest survey. Beekeepers across the state started with 1,340 hives on Oct. 1, 2017; by April 1, only 564 hives remained. The data was collected from 377 beekeepers across 170 towns, a larger population than last year’s survey.

It’s a steeper drop than what the Bee Informed Partnership, an organization that collects national data on the decline of honeybees in the United States, reported in its own 2017-18 winter survey. Of 668 reported hives, 51.2 percent were lost this winter, a slight decrease from the 712 hives that saw a 54.1 loss in the 2016-17 winter.

Winter hive mortality has fluctuated by at least 20 percent in recent years. During the 2013-14 winter, the state lost 52.89 percent of its 537 reported hives, an amount that climbed to 36.3 percent the next year. By the 2015-16 winter, hive mortality was at 29.5 percent – and then spiked last winter.

Heather Achilles, who runs the survey for NHBA, said the survey, which had more respondents and questions than last year, has raised more questions than it answered.

“One of the big questions we had with the 16-17 survey was whether drought had a lot to do with the losses, whether bees didn’t have good nectar,” she said. “Unfortunately we saw high losses in the same counties this year, so can we really say drought was an issue?”

The damage

It’s difficult to say which county suffered the most losses.

For instance, Coos County respondents reported a 100 percent hive loss this winter – but only reported seven hives, two less than the previous winter. Merrimack County reported 204 hives and lost 73 percent, according to the NHBA data. Hillsborough County, which had the second-highest amount of reported hives at 199, lost 57 percent.

The biggest rate of change was seen in Belknap County, which lost 31 percent less of its hives this winter; however, they also had a two-and-a-half times larger reported amount of hives than the previous year. A similar scenario happened in Cheshire County, which lost 17 percent of its hives but reported three times as many hives this year as last year.

Hive loss peaked in the harsh winter months, with December seeing 149 losses, January 229 losses and February 145 losses.

What kills bees

An interesting shift in this year’s survey from last year’s results is beekeepers’ knowledge of what is killing their bees.

Last year, 45 percent of respondents didn’t know what caused their bees to die. Varroa mites was the next-highest cause at 30 percent, followed by starvation at 17 percent.

This year, varroa mites topped the list at almost 33 percent, followed by starvation and moisture problems. “Don’t know” came in around 14 percent.

But Achilles said that result could have come from how the NHBA asked questions regarding bee death, not necessarily a lack of information. She also noted nosema, a widespread disease in honeybees caused by the nosema apis fungus, could still be an underdiagnosed culprit, as it was a low-ranking cause of death both years.

Achilles attributed nosema’s scarcity to a lack of education on what the disease looks like, but beekeepers will soon have a diagnostic resource available, thanks to a three-year Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant the University of New Hampshire’s Cooperative Extension received this year.

Part of that money was used to purchase 10 microscopes for each of the state’s counties and train volunteers on how to identify nosema for the NHBA. Achilles said those volunteers have been trained; beekeepers can learn how to get their bees tested at nh-honeybee-health.com.

Learning how to spot nosema and mites was critical to bees surviving the winter; Achilles said keepers who treated for one or both threats in some form saw higher survival rates than keepers who did not.

One area Achilles
thought might make a difference in survival was the race of bees that keepers tend, saying that there’s research that says Northern bees
bred in New England might be able to handle the cold better or that Russian bees are better adapted to handle mites.

The data was not fine grain enough, however, to say whether certain types of bees survived, Achilles said.

A costly endeavor

Figuring out what’s hurting the honeybee population in the state doesn’t just have environmental implications; it has discouraging financial ones for the beekeepers.

Achilles said a “pack” of bees, or about 10,000 bees, can cost anywhere between $120-$170. That’s enough to start a single hive, but packs sometimes don’t include a queen, which can be an extra cost, or any infrastructure like a box or comb slates.

The cost has gone up substantially since Achilles started beekeeping 10 years ago, when a pack was $85. She said environmental events in places where people raise commercial bees, like the fires last summer in California, can impact the availability of bees and raise the prices.

Nucleus colonies, or NUCs, can be even more expensive, as they are already working hives that are producing honey and include infrastructure.

Stephanie Green, president of the Capital Area Beekeeper Association, said the cost can be disheartening to new keepers.

“When you have to spend $200 each year to get new bees, it’s enough to discourage someone after 1 to 2 years,” she said. “We see a lot of third-year beekeepers dropping out because of that.”

Green lost two of the four hives she had this winter, which she blames on the mid-winter warming. She figures her bees stopped “clustering” – essentially huddling for warmth during the winter – and then didn’t recluster near their food supply when the temperatures dropped.

She said treating bees for mites, calling them “enemy No. 1,” is critical to bees surviving the winter, saying mites make hives weak and less likely to survive. Treatment isn’t expensive and won’t harm the bees, but can be a balancing act for those who want their bees to remain “natural.”

“No one wants to use any kind of chemicals,” she said. “But at the same time, we’re (beekeepers) farmers, and bees are our livestock.”

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309 or candrews@cmonitor.com.)

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