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Honeybee deaths rose last year. Here's why farmers would go bust without bees

Beekeeper Steven Reese inspects his hives at Bennett Orchards in Frankford, Del.
Allison Aubrey
Beekeeper Steven Reese inspects his hives at Bennett Orchards in Frankford, Del.

If you like to eat blueberries, apples, almonds and other fruits that require pollination, you can thank a honeybee. Farmers could not grow these crops without the essential service bees provide.

"We depend on honeybees for our existence," says Hail Bennett of Bennett Orchards in Frankford, Del., which has just opened its fields to u-pick visitors for peak season.

Each spring, just as his blueberry bushes are flowering, Bennett rents loads of bees from a commercial beekeeper. For three weeks, the bees buzz around, moving millions of grains of pollen within and between flowers to pollinate the plants.

"It's pretty amazing how much work the bees have to do," Bennett says. There are millions of flowers on his 6 acres of blueberries, and "each flower has to be visited six to eight times by a honeybee in order to be fully pollinated," Bennett explains as he splits open a plump berry to inspect its seeds.

"You want to have at least 15 seeds in the fruit, Bennett says, looking approvingly as he counts them. "That tells you the flower was adequately pollinated in the spring," he says.

Each spring, just as his blueberry bushes are flowering, Hail Bennett rents bees from a commercial beekeeper to pollinate his plants.
Allison Aubrey / NPR
Each spring, just as his blueberry bushes are flowering, Hail Bennett rents bees from a commercial beekeeper to pollinate his plants.

Bennett recalls hearing stories about the collapse of honeybee colonies when he was in high school. Across the countrybees were disappearing from their hives. Now, a new survey of beekeepers finds bees are still struggling.

"Over the entire year, we estimate that beekeepers lost 48.2 % of their colonies," says Dan Aurell, a researcher at Auburn University's bee lab, which collaborates with the nonprofit Bee Informed Partnership to perform the survey.

The report covers the period between April 2022 and April 2023 and included 3,006 beekeepers from across the U.S. This year's count marks the second-highest estimated loss rate since 2010 to 2011, when the survey started recording annual losses.

"This is absolutely a concern," Aurell says. "This year's loss rates do not amount to a massive spike in colony deaths, but rather a continuation of worrisome loss rates."

"It's bad," says former USDA research scientist Jeff Pettis, in regard to the survey findings. "It shows beekeepers are still being affected by a number of challenges," he says. Beekeepers are finding they need to work harder to maintain their colonies, says Pettis, who is the president of Apimondia, an international federation of beekeepers associations.

"A major concern for bees is the Varroa mite," Pettis says. It's a small parasite that feeds on bees and makes it difficult for them to stay healthy. "It shortens their lifespan," Pettis says. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Varroa is an invasive species that originated in Asia, and Pettis says beekeepers can use organic acids and other synthetic products to protect their bees.

Pettis keeps bees on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where he's had some success using formic acid to treat against Varroa mites. "The organic acids are effective, but they do take time and money," Pettis says.

Last year beekeepers lost 48.2% of their colonies. It's the second highest loss since 2010 to 2011, when a survey started recording annual losses.
Allison Aubrey / NPR
Last year, beekeepers lost 48.2% of their colonies. It's the second-highest loss since 2010 to 2011, when a survey started recording annual losses.

Other challenges bees face are beyond the control of any one beekeeper, Pettis says. They include the use of pesticides, a loss of nutrition sources for honeybees due to urbanization, or land use practices leading to fewer and less diverse food sources, such as wild flowers.

There's also a concern that can seem hidden in plain sight — climate change. "When you layer on the big, broad issues of climate change, bees are really struggling," Pettis says.

Blueberry farmer Hail Bennett says he aims to be a good steward of the land. He invited a hobbyist beekeeper, Steven Reese, to set up on his farm, which could help some of their visitors learn how crucial bees are to his operation, and to agriculture overall.

Reese is retired from the Air Force and now works as a civilian for the Army. He says beekeeping is relaxing for him, almost a form of meditation. He says it is work to manage his bees, but he's been able to maintain his numbers, and grow his colonies, by dividing hives when some of the bees die. "If I left them feral, so to speak, and allowed them to survive on their own, it would be a much higher loss rate," so the effort is worth it, he says.

Reese says bees never cease to amaze him, with their hive instincts and sophisticated ways of organizing themselves. "They communicate in phenomenal ways," he says.

For farmer Hail Bennett, the bee is paramount. Without bees there are no blueberries.

"It's important for people to understand and remember where their food comes from," Bennett says.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.

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