AUSTIN, Texas — Bees aren’t just for making honey, these insects are among the most lucrative workers in the United States, contributing at least $15 billion to the economy annually, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture.
However, honeybee populations have been drastically declining for years.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture says honey bee populations have been declining in the United States since the 1940s, going from a population of around 6 million to about 2.5 million today.
Lawmakers and environmental groups are drafting a bill to make Texas’ landscape more plant pollinator friendly.
For beekeepers like Tanya Phillips, help can’t come soon enough. Phillips is the queen bee of the Texas Honey Bee Farm in Austin. When she heard all the buzz about bees dying out, she wanted to do something about it.
“We started thinking, we have to save the bees, we have to educate people, we need to make better beekeepers, we need to help the scientists,” Phillips said.
Twelve years later, Phillips has gone from conservation hobbyist to owning a full-blown business with around 80-150 colonies. But, Phillips says, after all these years working with these petite pollinators, her bee populations haven’t gotten better.
“This year has been the worst year probably,” she said.
She says severe cold and drought have killed off hundreds of colonies in her area in the past four months.
The Bee Informed Partnership (BIP) Loss and Management Survey shows commercial beekeepers lost about 39% of their honeybee colonies from April 2021 to April 2022. Smaller beekeepers like Phillips had far worse losses.
The BIP preliminary report found backyard beekeepers with less than 50 colonies had a record high colony-loss rate of 58.5% in 2022. Sideliner beekeepers managing 51 to 500 colonies like Phillips also saw an increase.
“If they’re not killing each other, and if I’m not killing them, and the weather’s not killing them, you know, maybe they’ll make it,” she said.
The colony loss report found Texas had an annual loss of 33.9% from April 2021 to April 2022. That’s not the worst compared to other states, but it’s not the best either.
Juliana Rangel runs the Texas Honey Bee Lab at Texas A&M University, which collaborates with the Bee Informed Partnership. Rangel says the data is voluntarily self-reported, so it’s really only a snapshot of the problem and participation isn’t always great.
Only 73 beekeepers provided data for the April to June quarterly report in 2022, so the numbers are likely much higher. But despite that, Rangel says the numbers are way above what’s acceptable honeybee colony loss, which is between 13% to 17%.
“We’re seeing losses that are double or even triple that number in the last 10 years, which is unacceptable,” Rangel said.
Parasites like the varroa mite are the biggest cause of colony loss, followed by colony collapse disorder, pesticides, diseases and weather events.
A USDA report on honey bee colonies found 45.2% of colonies from April to June in 2022 were affected by varroa mites.
At this point, Rangel says beekeepers, scientists and researchers are putting all their efforts into replacing the colony losses rather than finding a solution.
“Because we are facing losses year after year, we are unable to increase the overall number of colonies in the country,” Rangel said.
Phillips says she has planted native wildflowers on her property to help with pollination, but with the recent drought they all died. Now, she puts out pollen in trays for the colonies that don’t have enough food for their hives.
“I’m having to just buy brand new colonies just to replace my losses,” she said. “You’re spreading your resources really thin just to survive.”