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2013-2014 Winter Honey Bee Losses Are Likely To Be Large

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Dead honey bees in a colony with inadequate food reserves. (Urbana, Illinois)

Over the next few months we will hear news of this winter’s honey bee losses in North America. The news won’t be good.

Although official loss tallies have yet to be released, persistently cold weather across the northern part of the continent has made the 2013-2014 winter an unusually difficult one. Beekeepers relying on standard fall harvesting and feeding regimes are almost certainly discovering, as spring arrives, that their preparations were inadequate for at least some colonies.

Honey bees survive winter in a remarkable fashion. Rather than slowing into diapause the typical insect way, letting the body’s natural anti-freeze proteins do the work, honey bees instead maintain the center of the nest at room temperature. They create heat by metabolizing honey, and the honey furnace is powerful indeed. Hive temperature doesn’t waver even at – 40º outside. Honey is fuel, and in cold winters bees need more fuel than in warm winters. They are like us.

I mention the weather as a preemptive debunking of agenda-laden claims to come.

Recent bee declines, and especially the mysterious Colony Collapse Disorder, are often co-opted into the advocacy efforts of groups against cell phones, pesticides, and any number of other issues. While these organizations are well-intentioned, their efforts have tended to overstep the scientific research on Colony Collapse. The best studies point somewhere between inconclusive and a complex blend of various factors. If this season’s losses are high, we will likely be hearing more of the loosely-tethered campaigning. Be appropriately skeptical that anything other than weather (and, if you like, climate change) is behind the latest bee-pocalypse.

Colony Collapse, whatever the cause, is marked by a lack of adult bees in the hive in early spring. It’s as though the worker force flew off and never returned, leaving behind a queen, some young bees, and otherwise healthy-looking brood.

Regular winter loss, on the other hand, ends with adult bees inside the hive, tragically face-down in the cells as they ate through the final honey stores:

Colonies that perish from starvation are found with many workers face-down in empty honey cells, having eaten the last of the stores.

These bee deaths are sad, but they are not a symptom of some global conspiracy. They are simply what happens when lazy beekeeping meets a harsh winter.

Alex Wild About the Author: Alex Wild is Curator of Entomology at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies the evolutionary history of ants. In 2003 he founded a photography business as an aesthetic complement to his scientific work, and his natural history photographs appear in numerous museums, books and media outlets. Follow on Twitter @myrmecos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. BeepodCharbee 5:25 pm 03/17/2014

    Guessing Alex spends more time with ants than bees for his observations and antidotes seem a bit unfounded. Losses will likely be high from the cold and from the long dry Fall preceding the record severe winter. Lack of forage meant colonies tapped their winter stores and had less going into winter. Knowing honey is used as food and as their heat-sink… having less of it in deep cold means they have to work harder to maintain the 85-95F temps around their queen. But what gets me more is his seemingly oblivious observation of super organism behavior relative to CCD. Yes the bees disappear but any beekeeper worth their salt can tell you they leave to protect their organism (family) form catching whatever disorder they are suffering from… and gee if you raise a super organism in a world saturated in systemic and topically applied neurotoxins designed to destroy gut microbial life and attack the nervous system… the bees… and everything -including Mankind- are going to suffer. So yes Alex, winter2014 will take its toll, but I would not go so far to discredit the role of our monoculture agriculture system and its necessary chemical support requirements as the principle cause of CCD. Unless its tied to your tenure and funding to say so.

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  2. 2. wtyler 9:12 pm 03/17/2014

    BeepodCharbee, do you have any evidence at all to support your statements, aside from salted beekeepers? And I’m outraged at your baseless attack on Alex’s integrity.

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  3. 3. DantheBeekeeper 9:55 pm 03/17/2014

    Don’t feel outraged, he posts these attacks all over the internet. Refuses to be civil…

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  4. 4. sara28010 6:49 am 03/18/2014

    Whatever the reason is for so many bee deaths, it’s clearly a huge problem. Here’s an article about how to get involved and help be part of the solution!

    Link to this
  5. 5. Fisher8965 10:43 am 03/18/2014

    I think Beepodcharbee makes some damn good points. Sure, the winter is bad but it is certainly compounded by the myriad contributions of CCD.

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  6. 6. BeepodCharbee 9:57 pm 03/19/2014

    I’m not sure what I need to “support” my statement. I agree my tongue and cheek in saying Alex might work with Ants more than bees was perhaps harsh… His account of bees using honey to heat and running out this winter being a big factor for this year’s die-off is not incorrect.

    But I stand behind my statements about chemicals used to support our monoculture agriculture system and how they are killing the bees and everything else… If you can’t see this you are just not looking.

    Even today France banned neonicotinoid corn seeds from their nation, last week Eugene, OR enacted a local ban on use of neonicotinoid seeds. Most civilized nations on earth restrict or ban the use of these for proven links to neurologic and gut microbial ailments in humans, animals and insects. Even Germany, the nation where Bayer is headquartered, will not let them use their products in farmlands.

    Ignore this at our peril… and yes I will continue to speak out against people who downplay monoculture’s role. I’ll just try to be nicer about it… okay?

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  7. 7. tuckerb 3:44 pm 03/28/2014

    Mr. Wild has written an article again that points a finger at “lazy beekeeping” and inclimate weather or climate change. While both of those are legitimate explanations in some instances I think I can say that most beekeepers who lost colonies this winter will tell you that most of our losses occurred with plenty of honey in the hives. I am always skeptical of someone who is not a beekeeper or an expert in the field who assumes he knows the answer to what is behind the jump in winter losses we have seen in the past 10 – 14 years. I would question how many beekeepers Mr. Wild talked to to produce this expert opinion of what is plaguing our industry today. Many good scientists have spent many man years investigating this and there are currently over 200 peer reviewed papers that would not support these claims. There are also thousands of beekeepers who have been keeping bees for decades who know how to keep their bees from starving to death. We have never spent so much time managing our bees and building them up with time and effort in the fall only to see them die in January and February because the winter bees do not live as long as they need to to insure the colonies survival. This type of misinformation is hurtful to the survival of our industry which is critically important to our food supply. I tire of people calling beekeepers lazy.

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  8. 8. ikewinski 9:09 pm 04/11/2014

    Alex, do you have any information about the reports of massive bee kills in the almond orchards this spring?

    “Commercial beekeepers who flood California’s almond orchards with nearly 2 million hives every March have lost 25 percent of their colonies to chemical sprays and they are blaming loose regulations for the injury and deaths of an estimated 17 billion bees.”

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  9. 9. ikewinski 9:16 pm 04/11/2014

    Re: “any beekeeper worth their salt can tell you they leave to protect their organism (family) form catching whatever disorder they are suffering from.”

    Maybe not. Via Ed Yong this week, on that impulse in ants:

    “In a naive framework, leaving the nest appears to be altruistic but it’s actually part of the fungus’ manipulation.”

    We like to project altruism on other species, partly as a way of damning humans for our failings. But I think that’s a broken story on both ends.

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  10. 10. Junebug56 12:29 am 04/22/2014

    Bees have obviously died due to record-breaking sub-zero temperatures this past winter. It’s perfectly understandable, and blaming the beekeepers is harshly unfair. But anyone with even half a brain should realize that pesticides that kill “pests” will also kill bees. It isn’t rocket science. Monsanto and BASF will tell you otherwise, but they are hugely powerful corporations that are backed by congressional power, and they can pretty much tell you whatever you they want you to hear. It’s up to you whether you actually believe it or not.

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  11. 11. limeychiney 1:15 pm 04/30/2014

    I’d just like to add an observation from Portland, Oregon that we have seen almost no honey bees in our neighborhood this spring. In the last two weeks, we have seen zero during our walks and there’s been lots blooming for many weeks now. The ubiquitous dandelions and rosemary bushes are usually buzzing by this time. Now, nothing.

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  12. 12. Chanceeg 1:53 pm 05/21/2014

    The USDA says that honeybee loss is still at unsustainable levels, 23.2% over the winter.

    This is a major issue, Executive Director Achim Steiner of UNEP stated that “The way humanity manages or mismanages its nature-based assets, including pollinators, will in part define our collective future in the 21st century,” and that “The fact is that of the 100 crop species that provide 90 percent of the world’s food, over 70 are pollinated by bees.”

    The European Commission has already banned neonicotinoid pesticide use based on damning scientific evidence. We should do the same… Sign my petition to the White House, you always see people posting memes, this petition will go directly from the government site to the proper authorities. Sign up, make your own petitions, vote on what matters to you and make it count.

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