It’s the last federal report on honeybee populations we’ll see — at least for a while — and the numbers for California show the number of colonies are still decreasing.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced in July that it would no longer be funding a nationwide annual survey of the honeybee population, citing a need for cost cuts. The survey was started under the administration of former President Barack Obama in 2015.
“The decision to suspend data collection was not made lightly but was necessary given available fiscal and program resources,” the USDA said in a notice on its website, though officials have not said how much the survey costs.
The data covers colonies lost, new colonies and renovated colonies, with some states adding and renovating more colonies than those that are lost.
Pollinators like bees are under threat because of parasites, pesticide use, destruction of habitat and the climate crisis. The top threat in California is a parasite called varroa, followed by other pests, parasites and diseases and then pesticides. Those threats have remained consistent since 2015.
The latest results, which cover up to April 1, show a slight decrease in the honeybee population, both in California and nationwide. In California, there were 30,000 fewer honeybee colonies between Jan. 1, 2017 and Jan. 1, 2019, a loss of about 2.6 percent of the state’s honeybee colony population.
Previous surveys showed a loss of 19 percent of honeybee colonies in California between 2015 and 2017, about 270,000 colonies lost. Nationwide, the decrease was smaller, with honeybee colonies during that time decreasing from about 2.8 million to 2.6 million.
California particularly needs honeybees for pollinating crops such as almonds, apples, avocados and grapes.
Honeybees have had to be shipped into California to help with almond pollination particularly. Gordon Frankie, who researches bees for the Univeristy of California at Berkeley Essig Museum of Entomology, said the loss of the survey is “horrible.”
“There’s always a cry for more, long-term research but it’s hard to get things funded past three years,” Frankie said. “Cutting back on anything that has to do with pollination is just a disaster.”
William Kern, an associate professor of entomology and nematology at the University of Florida, said it’s hard to know how much of an effect the loss of the survey will have right now.
“It’s always good from a scientific point of view to have more data, so anytime the amount of data is reduced, it prevents you from knowing what’s going to happen,” Kern said. “Is it going to be devastating? I don’t know yet.”
Kern said he would be supportive of re-purposing funding for the honeybee survey to study native bees, which are also important pollinators that are not studied as closely, but the USDA has given no signal that they plan to do that.
Without long-term research, Frankie said, it’s hard to say what the trends are and what particularly contributes to losses in population. And while there are private studies of honeybee populations, long-term funding is never guaranteed. And mortality rates on honeybees have increased, he warned, currently at 40 percent — up from a more typical 25 percent.
The only reason more net losses have not occurred, Kern said, is because beekeepers have increased the amount of colonies by splitting successful ones, knowing they had to react to losses in the honeybee population due to research such as the USDA’s.