Winter honey bee deaths devastate keepers, puzzle scientists

Something is killing the honey bees of Maryland.

Close to 60 percent of the managed hives died last fall and over the winter — about twice the national average, according to the state bee inspector and local keepers.


"I had a healthy hive that produced 50 pounds of honey last year, and we were anticipating another great year," said Stephen Christianson, a Mount Washington beekeeper of three years. "Then, they were just gone. It took my breath away."

Some blame inexperience on the part of the beekeepers, most of whom tend their hives as a hobby, coupled with a bad winter.


But others blame a brew of pesticides and other toxins that threatens to not only wipe out the bees — which are essential to agriculture, from large farms to backyard gardens — but also other pollinators such as butterflies.

"There's no better way to kill every pollinator in the area than to put this on what they eat," said Steve McDaniel, a 35-year beekeeper and retired chemist who lives in Carroll County, holding a can of insecticide meant to protect flowers. "This is a war on bees."

A national report issued today by the Bee Informed Partnership, a collaboration of state and federal agencies, confirms that six of the last seven winters have been particularly deadly for honey bees.

The industry considers a loss rate of 15 percent to be acceptable. Last winter, the mortality rate among all U.S. beekeepers was 31.1 percent, an increase of 42 percent over the previous year. When mostly backyard beekeepers were polled, the mortality rate jumped to 45 percent.

"Losing 30 percent of the bees over the last seven years is pretty alarming if you're a beekeeper," said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a research scientist at the University of Maryland and one of the authors of the report. "Beekeepers can't sustain that kind of loss forever."

In Maryland a robust honey bee population is key to flourishing farms. The agriculture department estimates that crops valued in excess of $40 million — apples, melons, berries and pumpkins — require or benefit from honey bee pollination.

The unexplained death of millions of bees makes government officials and regulators here and abroad uneasy. The European Union voted last week to suspend the use of three pesticides containing neonicotinoids, a nerve agent, on flowering crops for two years.

Bayer CropScience, the German maker of one of the leading pesticides containing neonicotinoids, criticised the E.U. vote as a "set-back for technology, innovation and sustainability" that will result in "crop yield losses, reduced food quality and loss of competitiveness for European agriculture."


After the E.U. vote, the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency released a study that acknowledged the decline of the honey bee population but warned against jumping to conclusions. The report said multiple factors are to blame for colony declines, including parasites and disease, pesticides, poor nutrition and genetics.

Jerry Fischer, the Maryland bee inspector, listed another factor: "management."

The state has 1,782 registered beekeepers who together own more than 13,000 hives, also called colonies. Of that total, 68 percent tend at most two hives.

"It's a hobby. It's not a priority. It's not an income that's going to sustain you. The bees die and you buy some more. That's the mindset," said Fischer, who has been a keeper for more than 60 years. "They don't want to admit they've done something wrong."

McDaniel, who lost 13 of his 20 colonies, bristled at that characterization.

"This is the worst I've seen in 35 years. We didn't all get stupid at once. I don't know what it is, but it isn't our stupidity," said McDaniel, holding part of a hive that was once thriving.


The frame is one of four or five that sit inside a wooden box that constitutes the hive. Dead bees are clustered around their queen at one end of the frame, away from a nourishing glob of honey.

"They were well nourished and cared for, but they couldn't even keep themselves warm," McDaniel said quietly. "They starved and died."

Geneva Miller and her husband, Dennis, have run Miller Bee Supply from their home in Chase for 17 years. She said they have been getting 20 to 30 calls every day from distraught keepers, looking for replacements. The run on bees has been so serious that supply hasn't kept up with demand.

"A lot of people from all across the state have lost their bees this year," she said. "It's scary."

Since 2006-2007, millions of bees across the country have succumbed to colony collapse disorder, in which the colony's worker bees disappear, leaving the queen and young bees that cannot sustain themselves to die. Scientists still are looking for a cause, but signs point to the Varroa mite that sucks the blood from bees.

But Fischer said Maryland has never had a case of colony collapse disorder, "and we don't have one this year, either."


VanEngelsdorp agreed, saying he hasn't found colony collapse in two years of looking for it.

Instead, he cited "a host of other causes" for the bee deaths. Fields that used to be blanketed with clover and goldenrod that make good bee forage have been plowed under for soybeans and corn. Drought has altered long-term growing patterns. And, he added, the EPA needs to take a closer look at pesticide and fungicide use and exposure.

"Our level of mortality has been pretty constant. Are these bees telling us there's something wrong with the environment?" asked vanEngelsdorp.

Christianson said he and his wife delighted in making up 30 to 40 honey gift jars for friends and neighbors and putting up a half-dozen quart jars for family.

"It was a very rewarding experience, and our neighbors were tickled to death," he said. "I'd get back to doing it in a New York minute if I thought we could get things back the way they were. Obviously something is going on, and I don't think the experts are close to putting their finger on it."

But scientists say there's a growing body of research aimed at uncovering the root cause of the higher rate of bee deaths that, when shared with the agriculture industry and beekeepers, could help stem the losses.


"The problem is urgent and needs urgent answers. Can we get this information together fast enough to help the beekeepers and the farmers?" asked vanEnglesdorp. "I hope so."