GAINESVILLE — A recent national survey of beekeepers showed a significant loss rate of colonies, which may impact the future of commercial beekeeping.
The annual survey from the Bee Informed Partnership found that 37.7% of honeybee colonies died this past winter. That is about 9% higher than the average winter loss.
More than 4,700 beekeepers managing over 300,000 colonies participated in the survey.
Bees are especially vulnerable in the winter because they do not fare well in freezing temperatures, said Humberto Boncristiani, a honeybee husbandry researcher with the University of Florida's Honey Bee Research and Extension Laboratory. But the presence of disease-spreading mites are potentially the greatest risk for local colonies.
"The chances for the hive to die is much, much higher," he said.
Mites spread diseases to the bees by taking over open cells that contain bee larvae. They deform or weakens bees as they grow and can transmit deadly viruses.
Seth Young, a Newberry beekeeper who ran a small commercial operation through his company Valhalla Spa Organics, knows all too well the extreme impact mites can have on colonies.
Last April, he received a shipment of bees that soon became weakened by mites. Treating his colonies as temperatures began to climb was too risky.
"Oftentimes, the treatments for the varroa mite will kill the queen and a lot of bees if the temperature is too high when the treatment is administered," he said.
As a result, Young lost his entire group of colonies. He cannot afford to buy more queen bees, care for hives or move them across the country to pollinate crops for revenue this year.
Last year's hives became so nasty with pest-infested pollen and wax that they could not be salvaged.
"I just have to burn all the frames and hive boxes," he said.
Kyle Straughn, co-owner of Kim 'n' Kyle Straughn's Local Honey in Archer, said mites are a significant challenge for bee operations, but not the only one. Habitat loss from a lack of open prairie land is making it more difficult to maintain the business.
Straughn's has operated commercially for 12 years, staying afloat through colony collapse disorder, habitat loss and mites.
"Things are much more difficult than it used to be," Straughn said. "It's not hard to lose half your operation every year."
Management is key, he said. Being able to account for loss and act accordingly can keep the business going, although no clear solution exists that can solve every problem at once.
"There's no silver bullet," Straughn said.
Boncristiani, the UF researcher, said one possible solution to help protect against mites is to selectively breed colonies that have thrived even when large mite populations surrounded the area.
However, that is easier said than done. Unlike other livestock that can be corralled with fences, bees may travel far and wide to join with other colonies. Mite-caused disease can quickly spread.
"We need a more organized effort," Boncristiani said.
He and other researchers at the Honey Bee Lab are planning to study a bee from Puerto Rico that might have a genetic advantage to mites.
In the meantime, expensive measures to keep colonies safe and thriving are increasing costs and putting many, including Young, out of business.
Boncristiani said an increase in die-offs can lead to increased prices for honey, shampoos, wax and other bee-produced products.
In terms of human health, people rely on bee pollination: about a third of all food would be impossible to grow without bees.
"Most nutritional food that we have on our plate today come from pollination," Boncristiani said.
Straughn said that raw, unheated and unfiltered local honey is beneficial for people because it contains pollen from the area's wildflowers, which can help protect against allergies.
Boncristiani said the survey can help researchers and keepers better understand bee health, but it can also give a false sense of urgency for the future of bees.
"Those kind of surveys are important," he said. "But I don't want to create the illusion they are in danger of extinction."
He said the greatest danger is the increased threat commercial beekeeping operations face.
"It's getting harder and harder to keep bees."