The New Hampshire Beekeepers Association is looking to build a better understanding of what’s killing the state’s honeybees and whether beekeepers are continuing to replenish lost hives.
The organization found that
65 percent of the state’s honeybee hives did not survive winter 2016-17, with Merrimack and Belknap counties reporting the highest losses. What’s more, 45 percent of keepers reported not knowing what caused their bees to die.
That’s why NHBA’s second winter hive-loss survey will include questions on beekeeping practices and hive replenishment, said Heather Achilles, a Gilmanton beekeeper who organizes the survey.
Achilles said she suspected a big unknown cause of death was nosema, a widespread disease in honey bees caused by the nosema apis fungus. She said some of the disease’s symptoms – weakness and a lack of appetite – featured prominently in the last survey’s comments.
“There’s a couple of strains of nosema, and it can be hard to detect if you don’t know what to look for,” Achilles said. “People were reporting things like that but didn’t tie them together.”
The disease is getting more attention in the state; at the same time the survey is being conducted, researchers at the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension are training volunteers to spot the disease thanks to a professional development grant.
Olivia Saunders, a field specialist with the University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, said part of a three-year Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant was used to purchase 10 microscopes for each of the state’s counties.
Another portion is being used to train volunteers to use those microscopes to better identify nosema as a resource for the NHBA. Those volunteers should be ready for action by the summer or fall to start diagnosing sick hives, Saunders said.
Unlike other states that have larger commercial beekeeping industries, New Hampshire does not have dedicated support from its department of agriculture to study why honeybee hives die, Saunders said. UNH does have a Bee Lab, but that’s devoted to native bee population studies.
If New Hampshire keepers want to know if nosema is infecting their hives, they have to send them to a lab in Maryland, Saunders said. By the time they get results, their bees might be dead.
“Most of the focus on beekeeping is on mites,” Saunders said. “People know they are a problem and monitor and control for them. … Nosema is like a silent killer in that there can be no obvious reason for a bee’s death.”
New Hampshire lost 60 percent of its hives from 2009 to 2016, according to the Bee Informed Partnership, which collects national data on the decline of honeybees in the United States.
That’s higher than the country’s national average of 28.7 percent from 2006 to 2016, according to a new study from the Economic Research Service from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, the number of U.S. honey bee colonies has remained stable or risen between 1996 and 2016, the study found, with winter loss rates having no negative correlation with yearly changes in the number of U.S. colonies and loss rates having a positive correlation with the rate of colony additions.
But honey bees are starting to make a comeback. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported last April that 2.89 million bee colonies existed across the country, an increase of 3 percent compared to April 2016.
That’s partially why NHBA’s survey will also focus on beekeeping practices, including whether keepers will decide to replace the hives they lose, Achilles said. She figures many of them have or will; either that or new beekeepers are coming onto the scene to bolster numbers.
“I think a lot have chosen to replace them; or if not, there’s a lot of new beekeepers,” Achilles said. “The bee schools around the state have been very full or close to full.”
Achilles went on to say the survey could also shed light on whether keepers, knowing they might lose a couple hives, are choosing to start new hives in the summer to cushion the loss. New Hampshire does not require beekeepers to register with the state, making estimates difficult.
The survey is available through the end of April. Results are expected to be published in June, Achilles said.