yellow and black striped bee on red flower, in bunch of pink and red flowers
What's the Buzz?

A Rapid Recap of the Garden Bee Problem

Have you been wondering whether we’ve made any progress helping our poor, sick bees? Is there still something to worry about?

rectangle street sign with red banner across top; white reverse-out type reads CAUTION. Black text on white background reads Honey Bees on the Premises Bee-Ware. Illustration of large bee.

I’ve done a little digging for you and can report that—as with most things in life—there’s good news and bad news. The good news overall is that hundreds of people are working hard on the problem: scientists, farmers, beekeepers, citizen scientists, corporate research & development partners, backyard gardeners, schools…all working together. They all have something to report on their piece of the work…

The Big Bad Picture

USDA letters above a dark green silhouette of a farm field; text next to logo reads United States Department of Agriculture: Economics, Statistics and Market Information System

…but let’s start with the big picture. The USDA published a report on the situation, last dated August 1, 2018.

They base their statistics on bee colonies for operations with five or more colonies. As I understand it, this description covers a commercial enterprise that is managing at least 5 individual colonies, with 5 queens and sets of worker bees.

In January 2018, the U.S. had a total of 2.63 million colonies. This is a low number, considering that during all of 2017, when counts were taken at 4 intervals throughout the year, the U.S. had 2.64M colonies, 2.69M, 2.99M, and 2.85M. So overall, the number of colonies was down for 2018.

three beekeepers in full suits are tending a field of beehives
Beekeepers with Hives

If you prefer to digest your numbers in percentages, the losses during 2018 per quarter were 16%, 10%, 15%, and 11%.

That’s the straight-up bad news. If you like, download the report from here:

The Glass-Half-Full Picture

side view of honey bee on the side of a pink clover flower

Other news is that beekeepers everywhere are scrambling to add new colonies to make up for the losses. In most cases, they are adding more than were lost—presumably in an effort to stay ahead of the problem.

For all of us, we can read that to mean that all the encouragement to the home gardener to plant pollinator-attracting flowers and shrubs is all needed. Your backyard efforts are important. If commercial beekeepers are scrambling to stay ahead, then they need all the backyard gardeners’ help they can get.

Can We Point the Finger Yet?

So what’s causing the losses? So far, the main cause seems to the varroa mite. It’s a super tiny parasite that latches onto the larvae and eventually kills the hive.

Blue band across top with reverse-out type inside, reads Tools for Varroa Management

The Honeybee Health Coalition, listed below, offers a guide, which discusses a combination of chemical (synthetic chemicals, essential oils, and acids) and non-chemical controls. See page 5, column 1 of the guide for a quick overview.

The other problem hives are having is called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). It is characterized by adult bees abandoning a hive, even with a healthy queen present. Scientists still have no answer that explains this behavior. Hives suffering from CCD are up 9% since 2016.

Finally, you’ve heard about chemical seed coatings called neonicotinoids that many thought were causing the problems? Well, the research continues, but so far, there is conflicting evidence—even in 2 reports aired on NPR. See the links below for both articles. Let’s all have the facts before we make judgments these days.

Where’s the Cavalry?

Now let’s balance this with some good news. So many groups are organized to support the research and the bees that a simple listing here would not create an accurate picture of the activity. Here are 6 noteworthy groups:

The American Bee Project title in green letters with green leaf over the 'e' in American, and a bee hovering near the leaf

The American Bee Project offers a 50-State Guide that outlines activity throughout the country. For each state, it describes the law governing the classification of agricultural land. Beekeepers everywhere are encouraged to take the tax deductions available through this classification:

three hexagons in white outline; one has a butterfly inside it; another has a bee; another has a field

The Bee & Butterfly Habitat Fund presents a unique conservation solution that includes a seed legacy program:

honeybee with lettering forming a circle around the bee, reads The Honeybee Conservancy; title Honeybee Conservancy is next to the bee

Among other initiatives, The HoneyBee Conservancy offers suggestions for projects that schools can participate in:

Focusing on the agribusiness industry, The Honeybee Health Coalition offers resources developed for beekeepers and commercial growers:

golden background with darker golden oval inside it; honeybee is at the top of the oval; the words Honeybee Centre are inside the oval; words next to the oval read Experience the Amazing World of the Honeybee!

The Honeybee Center in Surrey, British Columbia offers a brick-and-mortar gathering spot for both education and commerce. Visit the store and website as a shopper, visitor, teacher, fruit grower, film producer, or tour coordinator to get information for yourself or to support your own business. They also offer pollination services, nest removal, courses and workshops, as well as “bee wrangling and rentals.”

Let’s Enlist!

The groups, companies, schools, and individuals working on this problem are so numerous, it is almost silly to list so few here. You are encouraged to do a little more digging on your own. Please leave a comment below to share the resources you have found.

And don’t forget to plant pollinators in your garden!

We're in this together! Let us know what you think!