Science

Honey Bee Population Decline May Affect Fruit Crops

By Hilda Scott , May 08, 2013 03:42 PM EDT

A recent nationwide survey announced Tuesday showed that one-third of the honey bee colonies died last winter. The honey bee population has seen declines for the past six years, when the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) began conducting its annual survey.

The death rate of honey bees rose from 22 percent last year to 31 percent this year. Beekeepers are seeing bee colonies dwindle, which leads to the bees becoming weak and can affect pollination of crops where fruit are grown.

"They can't generate heat very well in the spring to rear brood. They can't generate heat to fly," research leader of the Agriculture Department's Bee Research Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., Jeffery Pettis said.

Honey bee pollination is relied upon by farmers' fruit crops, such as apples and blueberries and also nut crops such as almonds. Commercial beekeepers work with the farmers to ensure the farmers' fruit crops are pollinated.

"We're getting closer and closer to the point where we don't have enough bees in this country to meet pollination demands," University of Maryland entomologist, Dennis vanEngelstorp said, 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," vanEngelstorp said.

Unfortunately, the decreased population may not be enough to pollinate fruit crops, as the numbers of honey bees in the population are dwindling.

Beekeepers blame the honey bee decline on bee-killing pesticides and parasites. Scientists explain that the loss may be a result of what they refer to as colony collapse disorder. First reported in 2006, colony collapse disorder describes when bees just abandon their hives for no apparent reason and disappear.

"Even if CCD went away, we'd still have tremendous losses. CCD losses are like the straw that breaks the camel's back. The system has many other issues," said Pennsylvania State University entomologist Diana Cox-Foster.

The UDSA survey also noted that climate changes can also affect the honey bee shortage. The drought last summer left bees malnourished and without much food, leaving them more vulnerable to infections and pesticides. 

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