USDA’s Controversial Honey Bee Health Survey

On August 1, 2017, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) published a survey about honey bee health which has outraged commercial beekeepers, honey bee health advocates and environmentalists. The survey implies that honey bee populations are increasing which is contrary to the reality commercial beekeepers face. Numerous commercial beekeeping operations have reported honey bee losses ranging from 30-60% due to exposure to neonicotinoids, IGR’s (insect growth regulator pesticides) and fungicides. The common belief expressed by honey bee health advocates is that the data is ambiguous and misleading to the uninformed.

Tune in to this segment of The Organic View Radio Show, as host, June Stoyer discusses this controversial USDA survey with Gene Brandi. Gene Brandi is owner and operator of Gene Brandi Apiaries since 1978. He currently holds the office of President of the American Beekeeping Federation. Previously, he was President of the California State Beekeepers Association, and has been a member CSBA Board of Directors since 1978.  Gene is also a board member, Project Apis-M, and past Chairman of the National Honey Board. To listen to the interview, click the link below.

“I think this is important to report the context of the numbers and what they really reflect because these are peak season numbers and peak season is the time when all beekeepers, including myself have the maximum number of colonies but is not reflective of the losses that we’ve incurred or that we are likely to incur in the future and have to build again,” stated Brandi.

Highlights From The Interview

JS: Gene, I know that you’ve sustained a tremendous loss as far as your operation is concerned and I think that is really important, especially since this report is indicating that everything is fine. Everything is on the mend.

We need to have healthy bees so we can have a healthy productive agricultural system. Gene Brandi

GB: Well, as I mentioned previously, in the last 10 years, we’ve lost  between 13-45% of our colonies over the wintertime. This last winter we lost over 30%.

I don’t think he’d mind me saying this but our VP of American Beekeeping Federation, lost about 60% of his colonies over the last winter.

So, it’s something that is still going on, obviously. The bees are still not healthy. The bees are still not doing what they used to do. It takes a lot of work to rebuild these colonies every year. I’ve rebuilt mine. We’ve restocked our dead colonies. We were back up by the middle of April. But still, it’s a lot of work. Queen bees cost $25-26 a piece nowadays, by the way. For my little 2,000 colony outfit, we usually buy between 1,400-1,600 queens a year. That’s just to keep everything going. The losses are still happening.

The bees are still not healthy! The bees are still not doing what they used to do

JS: If this were any other industry, people would be up in arms but it seems to be acceptable that when beekeepers sustain these types of losses, they just gloss over it. It doesn’t seem to make a difference. I guess they figured that, well, the beekeepers will come around; they’re resilient. The bottom line is this is a very, very serious matter. 

GB: Well, you’re right, June, that it is a very serious matter and serious to we in the bee industry, serious to those in the farming community that need our bees for pollination services. It’s a serious matter for the nation. 

As you mentioned earlier, it’s a national security issue and it really is. We need to have healthy bees so we can have a healthy productive agricultural system in a sustainable food supply.

Response From USDA

We reached out to Mr. Joshua T. O’Rear, Poultry and Specialty Commodity Section, USDA, NASS in regards to the following questions which were submitted to us by our listeners.  

JS: What was the percentage of losses experienced by beekeeping operations with 100+ colonies? Most commercial operations consist of several hundred colonies. A hobbyist operation typically consists of 1-5 colonies. So, there is a great need for clarity with your figures, especially since most commercial operations are openly discussing the fact that they are sustaining losses of 30% and higher.

honey bees

JO: USDA, NASS historically only published data for operations with five or more colonies as part of the Honey report data series. Starting in 2016, we published US level data on operation with less than five colonies.  2016 was also the first year we published the Honey Bee Colonies report, with data tables for operations with five or more colonies and less than five colonies.  USDA, NASS has not published estimates for operations with 100 or more colonies, so that information is unavailable.

JS: Why isn’t there much emphasis on the impact of pesticides? Colony collapse is a symptom of an even bigger problem with the honey bee.

JO: Per our phone conversation, I believe it best to explain the methodology by which we produce our estimates for the Honey Bee Colonies report. USDA, NASS draws a stratified sample of operations with five or more colonies for all 50 states and then tracks them over the course of the year, from April 1 to April 1. Every respondent receives the same questionnaire for each quarter. The questionnaire ask respondents to report their number of colonies, losses, adds, and then a variety of health issues by the states they operated in during the quarter. For health issues, we ask respondents to report “the number of colonies affected by, but not necessarily loss”  for the stressors of varroa, other pests and parasites, diseases, pesticides, other stressors, and unknown stressors. A sample of operations with less than five colonies receives a similar version of the questionnaire once per year in January to report comparable data.

We use the number of colonies reported to be affected by these stressors with the number of colonies reported in the state to produce a percent of colonies affected.  It’s important to note, that we do not question if they stressors caused a colony to be lost, and at no point does our publication attribute loss to any factor.  Also, this percentage is entirely based on what beekeepers report to be affecting their colonies.  If a beekeeper is unable to identify a stressor, is unaware their colonies are affected, or does not believe their colonies to be affected, then they may not report their colonies or may report them under a different stressor. USDA, NASS does not have a lab to collect an objective measure of the presence mites, pesticides, disease, or any other factor that could affect honey bee health. The estimates are simply what was reported to be affecting colonies. For information on lab testing for varroa and other stressors, I’d recommend reaching out to Dr. Jay Evans with USDA, ARS.

For numbers related to CCD.  We ask our respondents to report how many colonies were lost for any reason with all of  the following symptoms:

  1. Little to no build-up of dead bees in the hive or at the hive entrance
  2. Rapid loss of adult honey bee population despite the presence of queen, capped brood, and food reserves
  3. Absence or delayed robbing of the food reserves
  4. Loss not attributable to Varroa or Nosema loads.

As noted before, these estimates are based on numbers reported to us by the operations.

JS: Why is data being drawn from the peak months for beekeepers (Jan 2017-April 2017) when beekeepers are splitting hives or installing packages to try to recover their numbers?

JO: USDA, NASS surveys operation on a quarterly basis.  This is done to make sure we have comparable data year-to-year for the US number of colonies. January 1 is specifically collected so that we have a data series comparable to the Census of Agriculture, which is a point-in-time estimate for December 31st.   USDA, NASS also does not produce a seasonal or annual loss percentage, rather we provide it on a quarterly basis, which requires us to gather data for that time period.  In order to make minimize memory bias, we need to gather data as close to the reference period as possible, which necessitates us collecting around the start of each quarter.

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