I saw some new data come out recently on US and UK overwintering rates so thought I would take a look at it. It’s probably impossible to compare the two countries though, because the climate, diseases and scale of commercial beekeeping are so different. In the UK most beekeepers are hobbyists and colony collapse disorder isn’t even officially recognised as a problem. But beekeepers in both regions do share a common no.1 enemy – varroa.
Based on the data, it sounds like honey bees aren’t doing too badly – probably the bees we really need to worry about are the ones that we’re not counting, the bumbles and tiny solitary bees that go unnoticed by most people.
US survival rates
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) began collecting data on honey bee health and pollination costs in 2016, “to build an even more robust scientific body of knowledge on honey bees“. Sadly the data collection had barely begun before the USDA announced this year that it’s being suspended.
Still, you can see the reports for 2016-2019 at Honey Bee Colonies releases. Perhaps one day the value of science and data will be appreciated again and the surveys will continue to be collected once more. The 2019 survey data, published 1st August 2019, tells us that:
- Honey bee colonies for operations with five or more colonies in the United States on January 1, 2019 totaled 2.67 million colonies, up 1% from January 1, 2018.
- Honey bee colonies lost for operations with five or more colonies from January through March 2019, was 408 thousand colonies, or 15%.
- During the quarter of October through December 2018, colonies lost totaled 445 thousand colonies, or 16%, the highest number lost of any quarter in 2018.
Honey bee colonies lost with Colony Collapse Disorder symptoms on operations with five or more colonies was 59.9 thousand colonies from January through March 2019. This is a 26% decrease from the same quarter of 2018.
- For an interesting perspective on the USDA cancelling the honey bee tracking survey, and easy tips on what you personally can do to help bees, see ‘USDA discontinues honey bee tracking‘ by the husband & wife blogging team Married with bees.
Survival rates for England, Scotland, Wales, Channel Isles, Isle of Man and Northern Ireland
The British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) have released data for the winter of 2018-19 in their monthly magazine and a June 2019 press release, ‘Record low level of winter losses of honeybees‘. The data comes from a voluntary online survey completed by 5581 members.
The BBKA says:
“The overall winter survival rate was 91.5% or 8.5% losses. In England the rate was 91% survival with 9% losses, in Scotland 79% survival with 21% losses, Wales 94.3% survival with 5.7% losses and in the Channel Isles, Isle of Man and Northern Ireland survival rates were all above 98% so losses of less than 2% in those places.”
We’re doing well! As we’re quite a small country, most beekeepers are pretty near another beekeeper, which means there is usually someone not too far away to provide advice. And we have our fantastic National Bee Unit inspectors too, who will come out to see hives if a notifiable disease like American or European foul brood is suspected, as well as running Bee Health Day workshops to train beekeepers on spotting diseases. I wonder how much this good training and support network contributes to the high overwinter survival rate.
Below are some of the English stats, from their BBKA News magazine.
An interesting comparison Emily: I can tell you that here in Canada, loss rates are seriously under-reported, principally because summer queen losses are not counted as colony losses in commercial operations. A few years ago two of our larger local commercial beekeepers lectured openly on the prime difficulties in their operations. First and foremost was labour costs, which meant they medicated with oxytetracycline and amitraz as prophylactics, as the cost of missing contracts due to poor performance would soar along with labour costs to manage the bees if they did not medicate in advance of “issues”. They had a very high rate of queen loss monthly and were hard pressed to breed up replacement queens as that is a very labour intensive process. Most beekeepers I talk to accept a winter colony loss rate of 30% as acceptable, and many average something more like 50% (even here in the Pacific Northwest, where the climate is similar to that of the UK). So your national figures are admirable, and enviable!
Sorry to hear your loss rate is so high, do you know why that is? Did the commercial beekeepers have any thoughts on why they lose so many queens?
Over here using antibiotics prophylactically on bees is illegal, if AFB is confirmed by a bee inspector the colony must be destroyed by burning. With EFB sometimes oxytetracycline will be authorised by a bee inspector, or alternatively a shook-swarm will be used to get the bees on clean comb. Not having antibiotics forces us to concentrate on good apiary hygiene to prevent against foulbrood, which is good for the colonies generally.
Bear in mind that most of the beekeepers replying to the UK survey will have been hobby ones with a handful of hives, I’m not sure what the loss rate is for the few commercial beeks we have.
Wow, you blokes are good! I wonder how much the migratory beekeeping and lack of standards plays a role here in the U.S. We also suffer because honey bees are not native, and a number of regions, mine included, can’t support hives as well because of the summer and fall dearths. Not to mention the extensive use of packages, which I recently heard called “puppy mills for bees.” Our losses seem to be consistently higher than yours.
A shame about the USDA survey, not sure why they would cancel this. We still have the Bee Informed Partnership (https://beeinformed.org/) which does an annual survey, so at least that will continue to give us some data.
Thanks for sharing the data!
The migratory beekeeping can’t help, the stress of being moved about followed by only having access to one type of pollen for a week at a time and mixing with colonies potentially bringing diseases together from different areas.
Interesting analogy about the ‘puppy mills for bees’. I kinda get where they’re coming from, since you can’t see the combs the bees grew up on, so any diseases are hidden. I’ve never seen packages advertised over here or known anyone buy one. Most people either start off by buying a local nuc or by getting on the swarm list at their local association. Then once you’ve got bees you should be able to do swarm control splits the next year and keep going without having to buy new colonies.
Thanks very much for the link to the Bee Informed data, will check that out.
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I’m sure if bees could be trained to bomb foreign lands they would be getting all sorts of funding.
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They can be trained to sniff out explosives, but that’s probably not violent enough to get funding! https://science.howstuffworks.com/bomb-sniffing-bees.htm
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. . . if we could only train them to attack on command . . . after outfitting them with tiny swords.
Well I’m pretty good at getting them to attack me… and those stings feel like tiny swords.
The idea would be to attack others and do so on command. Not sure that what you’re describing would be if any tactical use to anyone.
At Gormanston last week one of the lectures included the use of bees in warfare. The usual method was to hurl skeps over castle walls at either the attackers or defenders.
Here in France they are talking about a 30% general loss of colonies coming out of the winter this year with some areas higher. Certainly near me there were amateurs that lost all. My five all survived. Over here it is the pesticides and treatments on agricultural land that is blamed. Cognac has been pesticide free since 2018 and Saintes also (I think) and I am hearing that colonies kept in those towns are doing better than the colonies kept by the same beekeepers in country districts. It is such a complicated issue and so difficult to point a finger. Amelia
I’m very relieved for you both that your bees are doing well. The hornets can’t be helping either. You’re right, very hard to pin down what makes most difference to the bees. I’ve been reading Dave Goulson’s latest book on wildlife gardening and he talks about anti-mosquito spraying by helicopter in the US which sounds pretty horrific for the effect it has on all insects. It would be very upsetting if they did that here.
Thanks for a great post and for sharing a link to http://www.MarriedWithBees.com. Congratulations to you and your fellow beekeepers for the impressive survival rates. I wonder how much the recent infatuation of the American consumer with almonds and almond products has contributed to the loss rates in the US. California has nearly 2 million acres of land devoted to almonds, and the majority of US commercial beekeepers send their bees to California for pollination services. US consumers perceive almond milk to be healthier, and this massive shift in consumer tastes has a huge ripple effect.
I also share your hope that one day data and science will be widely valued.
I hear almonds suck up a terrible amount of water too, causing other areas of California to suffer from drought. Some of my baking occasionally uses almonds and I always feel a little guilty 😦 Still drinking regular milk here but also some oat milk, which seems the least environmentally controversial ‘milk’.
This is interesting information but focussing on the 91% survival rate for 2018/9 does perhaps obscure the fact that the typical rate over ten years is more like 80-85%, although this is of course still much better than in the US.
With respect to the California Almond issue, I think it is agriculture gone mad, following profit at the expense of all else. My understanding is that they eliminate all other vegetation from the almond tree area so no native bees can survive. And there is the water issue as you say.
True, the ten year average rate will be more meaningful. We’ll probably see a lower survival rate next winter.
Probably the government should intervene to limit the amount of land that’s used for almond growing. That would push almond prices up for existing producers and beekeepers in turn. I believe some varieties of almond tree now produce almonds without requiring bee pollination, so beekeepers might become cut out from the process in the long term. https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2016/03/23/471437025/with-bees-in-trouble-almond-farmers-try-trees-that-dont-need-em
Interesting article. This will be my first winter beekeeping so it’s interesting to see these figure and get an idea of what to expect.
My tips for winter prep (in the UK) are: varroa treatment late August/early September, feed 2:1 syrup in September if you feel they need extra stores, put mouseguard on and a chicken wire cage to deter woodpeckers in November, oxalic acid treatment around winter solstice, and leave a slab of fondant over the crown board. I like to put insulation over the crown board too. Take the queen excluder out if you’re leaving any supers on. This works well for me anyway.