When people think about bees, they often think of honey. But for Florida’s commercial beekeepers, having pollinators to sustain the $4 billion blueberry, cantaloupe, cucumber, honeydew, raspberry and watermelon crops is sweeter than honey. However, with the drastic decrease in honeybee colonies, beekeepers and other stakeholders are concerned.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, “pollinators contribute more than $24 billion to the American economy, $15 billion from honey bees alone…Yet the number of managed honey bee colonies in the United States has declined steadily over the past 60 years, from 6 million colonies (beehives) in 1947 to 4 million in 1970, 3 million in 1990, and just 2.5 million today.” With such a heavy dependence on commercial pollination, domestic agriculture is facing a real threat.
In 2018, the Tampa Bay Times reported the drastic effect Hurricane Irma had on Florida’s ongoing problem of honeybee colony loss. According to Florida Department of Agriculture’s chief apiary inspector David Westervelt, “At least 75,000 of Florida’s 600,000 honeybee colonies were affected by the storm: Bees drowned, were blown off course, or died of starvation due to destruction of the nectar- and pollen-rich vegetation on which they forage.”
In order to compensate for these losses, the 2014 farm bill earmarked $20 million for the Emergency Assistance for Livestock, Honey Bees, and Farm-Raised Fish Program (ELAP). In April of 2018, that number was increased to $34 million.
Tracking honeybee loss became a priority in 2015 when the US Department of Agriculture conducted the Colony Loss Survey for the first time. The reliable, up-to-date statistics serve as a way to help track honey bee mortality.
However, with the 2019 budget cuts, data collection for the survey has been halted. According to a notice posted by the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Survey, “The decision to suspend data collection was not made lightly, but was necessary given available fiscal and program resources."
Although the suspension is temporary, it is unknown when or if it will be resumed.
According to Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an entomologist who studies bee health at the University of Maryland, this kind of research is important to better understand bee health and the role they play in agriculture. "The value of all these surveys is its continuous use over time so you can compare trend lines," he said.
Researchers at the USDA's Economic Research Service also described the dataset as “valuable and important for beekeepers and other stakeholders like the honey industry and farmers whose crops rely on honeybees to pollinate them.”
With the major role bees play in pollinating the crops we eat, finding ways to sustain diminishing colonies is a major concern. Additionally, creating funding for research and implementing policies that assist in the protection bees is an issue we all need to be buzzing about.