Every winter, Virginia’s honey bee population experiences colony losses. Over the past five years, surveys have shown a steady increase in honeybee mortality averaging greater than one-third of the statewide population.
Aaron Evans, an agricultural inspector with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, told a group of farmers in recent weeks that 2017 was a bad year for bee losses, and that the losses were even worse in 2018, with some beekeepers losing as much as 60 percent of their bees.
Evans said the cause of those losses is not pesticides but high levels of Varroa mites and Nosema infections in wintering bees. He said there is limited to no access to once widely available antibiotics that could help treat honey bee maladies. After an FDA ruling, medicinal treatment is available only through a veterinarian.
Few veterinarians are familiar with honey bee biology and diseases, which can hamper beekeepers’ ability to suppress maladies such as American foulbrood, the most destructive beehive disease. In addition, the manufacturer of the antibiotic Fumigillin, which was used to treat Nosema, closed in 2018, raising concerns about possible increases of the disease in the future.
Despite pesticides not being the reason for the decline, pesticide use in and around honey bee habitats is a concern. Virginia and three other states developed a Pollinator Protection Plan in 2017 aimed to foster communication between pesticide applicators and beekeepers and the use of best management practices to protect pollinators.
BeeCheck, a Virginia apiary registry, was created as a voluntary communication tool that enables beekeepers and pesticide applicators to work together, using a mapping program, to protect apiaries. Details are available at va.beecheck.org.
“BeeCheck shows applicators where registered hives are located, so that if they are going to spray, they can contact the producer and let them know when they plan to spray, what they are going to spray and other information. It makes it easier to communicate,” explained Tony Banks, a commodity specialist for Virginia Farm Bureau Federation.
VDACS is addressing the colony loss problem by encouraging people to become new beekeepers and encouraging existing beekeepers to add more hives. Last July VDACS transitioned from its Beehive Grant Program to a Beehive Distribution Program in which basic beehive units are purchased and distributed to individuals. The program goal is to increase the number of active beehives, and thereby pollinators, in the commonwealth.
VDACS also encourages homeowners and apartment dwellers to plant pollinator gardens and window boxes. Border plantings of bee-friendly plants around crop fields provides needed forage, particularly in hot, dry months.