Honeybees are crucial to the food supply, pollinating more than 100 of the crops we eat, including nuts, vegetables, berries, citrus and melons. But they are also facing a serious threat from a combination of parasites, pesticides, starvation and climate change that keep causing large die-offs of their colonies.
According to an annual bee survey by the University of Maryland and Auburn University, 48% of US honeybee colonies were lost in the year that ended April 1, 2023, the second highest death rate on record. The survey, funded and administered by the nonprofit research group Bee Informed Partnership, found that even though the number of US honeybee colonies “remained relatively stable”, the high mortality rate poses a challenge for beekeepers and farmers who depend on them.
“This is a very troubling loss number when we barely manage sufficient colonies to meet pollination demands in the U.S.,” said former government bee scientist Jeff Pettis, president of the global beekeeper association Apimondia that wasn’t part of the study. “It also highlights the hard work that beekeepers must do to rebuild their colony numbers each year.”
Beekeepers use costly and difficult measures to create new colonies and keep them alive, such as splitting and restocking hives, finding or buying new queens, or using starter packs for colonies. But these interventions are not always enough to prevent colony collapse disorder, a phenomenon where most of the worker bees disappear from a hive, leaving behind a queen and a few attendants.
“The situation is not really getting worse, but it’s also not really getting better,” said University of Maryland bee researcher Nathalie Steinhauer, the survey’s lead author. “It is not a bee apocalypse.”
Some companies and researchers are developing high-tech solutions to monitor and protect honeybee colonies, such as smart sensors, artificial intelligence programs, and precision pollination technology. One of them is BeeHero, a California-based startup that originated in Israel, which uses artificial intelligence and sensors to track 30 distinct colony metrics and predict hundreds of different scenarios in each hive.
“If the beekeeping process could not be made more profitable, then we will no longer have beekeepers to maintain bees. And without them, we’re not going to have bees,” said Omer Davidi, BeeHero’s CEO. “We are essentially building ‘electronic veterinarians.'”
Another project is led by Boris Baer, a professor of entomology at UC Riverside, who received $900,000 from the University of California’s Office of the President to establish a network of bee researchers and engineers at four UC campuses. The network aims to breed more resilient bees, develop medications and treatments for sick bees, and give beekeepers tools to better monitor bees’ health.
“Together, we’ll develop innovative tools needed to effectively combat declining honeybee health, keep our food affordable, and safeguard the livelihood of those working with bees,” Baer said.
The stakes are high for both the bees and the humans who rely on them. As Pettis said: “Without bees we would be eating oatmeal every day.”
– Nearly half of US honeybee colonies died last year. Struggling beekeepers stabilize population, The Press Democrat, June 23, 2023
– Bee colonies have collapsed across the US. One company has developed a high-tech solution, The Guardian, October 29, 2021
– Scientists developing new solutions for honeybee colony collapse, News UCR, January 7, 2021
– Honey bee colony loss in the US linked to mites, extreme weather events and pesticides, Phys.org, January 20, 2021