Washington Friends of Farms & Forests

We Help Washington Grow

Honey Bee Health

Bees play an important role in nature by pollinating the flowers they visit.  We may enjoy eating honey but the greatest service bees provide is the pollinating of crops.  Pollination increases the yield and quality of many crops.  Without bees, farmers would produce lower quality and quantities of food that is needed to feed the world.

Honey Bee Health and Numbers

The worldwide honey bee population increased by about 45% between 1961 and 2007.  While managed colonies decreased in some parts of the world (including the USA) in past years, increases occurred in Asia, Africa, South America, and Australia.  


Honeybee populations have increased slightly in the U.S. and Europe during the last couple of years. According to U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization statistics, the world’s honeybee population rose to 80 million colonies in 2011 from 50 million in 1960.


Honeybee populations have been stable during the two decades since neonic insecticides were introduced.

Honey Bee Pests and Pathogens

Since the 1950s, a parasitic mite known as Varroa destructor has spread to almost every Western honey bee hive, except in Australia.  The mite was introduced from the Asian honey bee, which co-evolved with it and which developed characteristics to minimize the harm caused by the mite.  Unfortunately our European honey bee does not have these characteristics.

The mite itself spreads viruses among the bee population when it sucks on adults and larvae.  In all, about 20 bee viruses are known to exist. 


The National Stakeholders Conference on Honey Bee Health, headed up by the EPA and USDA issued the following statement in their joint report in October 2012, "the parasitic Varroa mite is recognized as the major factor underlying colony loss in the U.S. and other countries." (http://www.ars.usda.gov/News/docs.htm?docid=15572). 


In addition to mites, bees also contend with fungal parasites, the Small Hive Beetle, and the Asian Hornet, not to mention various bacterial diseases the affect the colony's brood.

Colony Collapse Disorder

Since the autumn of 2006, US beekeepers have reported mysterious mass disappearances among honey bees.  At this time, the symptoms observed cannot be attributed to any particular cause or pathogen.  Colonies experiencing a collapse rapidly lose most of their adult bees, which leave the hive to die elsewhere.  The few remaining bees show an unusual spectrum of bacterial and viral infections or even parasite infestation and fungal diseases.

US bee researchers have coined the term "Colony Collapse Disorder" to describe this phenomenon.  Only a few colony losses can be described as CCD. While the term "colony losses" is often used for a variety of causes and symptoms, CCD is a clearly defined syndrome with particular criteria. 

Bees and Pesticides

There are strong ties between agriculture and beekeeping.  Agricultural practices can influence bee health.  The effects of pesticides on honey bees were tested as early as the 1920s.  Since then, testing requirements have evolved as scientific knowledge increased. 

It is a reasonable first assumption that an insecticide might have an effect on an insect such as the honey bee, yet the truth is effects vary significantly depending on the nature of the active ingredient and the formulation of the product.  EPA requires pesticide manufacturers to demonstrate bee safety or to develop safeguards to minimize bees' contact with the insecticide.  In 2012, the EPA began its own testing for pollinator health.

Following pesticide label guidelines is essential to bees' safety.  Farmers and beekeepers must cooperate to optimize spray times and minimize exposure to foraging bees.  Insecticides that may affect bees have labels that prohibit the use of the insecticide at certain times of the plant life, such as when the crop is in flower and when most bees will be present in the crops.  Farmers may be able to apply the insecticide either before or after this period when the risk of exposure to bees is significantly reduced.

Bee health is critical to the continued success of agriculture in Washington.  Most farmers are very sensitive to maintaining and helping the bee population to grow.  Pesticides are generally safe for bees when used according to the product label.  It is important for both farm owners and homeowners to read and follow pesticide labels to protect our bee populations.

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