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Nearly Half of America's Beehives Died Last Year

Bees are dying en masse and scientists aren’t sure exactly why—and this year, there was no miraculous turnaround.

In what's become, unfortunately, a sad and alarming annual tradition, every May the Bee Informed Partnership releases its survey of the health of America's beehives. If you've read anything about bees in the last few years, you'll know the news hasn't been good. Bees are dying en masse and scientists aren't sure exactly why—and this year, there was no miraculous turnaround. Beehive losses accelerated, and American beekeepers lost 44 percent of their hives from April 2015 to April 2016.

That's worse than last year, when beekeepers reported that they lost 40.6 percent of their hives. And like the year before, bees were dying during the summer, when they should be thriving. Losses in summer 2015 increased to 28.1 percent of hives, the same rate of loss for winter 2015.

"We're now in the second year of high rates of summer loss, which is cause for serious concern," said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, the director of the Bee Informed Partnership and an entomologist at the University of Maryland, said. "Some winter losses are normal and expected. But the fact that beekeepers are losing bees in the summer, when bees should be at their healthiest, is quite alarming."

Bees are a critical link in the food chain and pollinate fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Bee Informed notes that some crops, like almonds, are entirely dependant on honey bees; the White House reported that honey bees contribute more than $15 billion to the US economy annually in a special report on the importance of saving pollinators. Around the world, bees and other pollinators are responsible for 35 percent of crops, worth an incredible $577 billion.

Again, Bee Informed points to a cocktail of factors that are leading to colony losses. One that stands out is the varroa mite, a lethal pest that spreads easily between colonies. Pesticides are contributing to the die-off too, as are modern farming practices that emphasize single crop fields and inadvertently lead to bee malnutrition. Add to that list other possible threats like diesel fumes, which can confuse bees' sense of smell and make it harder for them to find food.

The data for the Bee Informed survey was collected from more than 5,700 beekeepers from 48 states, so this isn't just a regionalized problem. The respondents, some of whom are commercial beekeepers and some of whom are hobbyists, manage more than 15 percent of the roughly 2.65 million managed honey bee hives in America. Commercial hobbyists are often better prepared for varroa mite attacks, but infestations can spread from relatively unprepared hobbyists' hives to hives that otherwise are relatively well-defended.

"Many backyard beekeepers don't have any varroa control strategies in place. We think this results in colonies collapsing and spreading mites to neighboring colonies that are otherwise well-managed for mites," Nathalie Steinhauer, a graduate student in the University of Maryland Department of Entomology, said.

And in another potential threat to bees and other terrifying news, apparently there are Africanized killer bees that have been invading and conquering honey bee hives in Southern California and moving north. A beekeeper in Concord, outside of San Francisco, found a swarm in one of her hives during routine maintenance, and the agitated killer bees then went on a rampage throughout the neighborhood and ultimately killed two dachshunds.

With bees beset on all fronts, the situation is pretty grim. There are some things that can be done to help while scientists continue to tackle the problem. You could help a beekeeper with the cost of replacing bees through a sponsorship, or you could get into beekeeping yourself—anything to ward off a future where crops are failing and killer bees terrorize the Earth.