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Haunted by losses, a Maryland beekeeper speaks out

Honey bees at hive entrance

Feeling discouraged about the bee thing? You are not alone. Haunted by losses, Bill Castro, a thirty-year beekeeper from Maryland, shared the details of his disastrous 2016 bee season. The numbers are scary.

My apiary is experiencing the highest losses I have seen in my 30 years with bees. Drought, high pesticide load from yards, unprecedented amounts of mosquito spraying, and a severe lack of nectar and pollen have contributed to this in a spectacular way. 2016 proved to be disastrous for an ever-increasing number of beekeepers including myself. Our honey crop was cut in half from 2014 and 2015, even though I had more productive colonies. Sadly, I don’t know what my next moves may be with honey bees, but I will forever be haunted by the results 2016 brought me and my apiary.

Abysmal losses

A frustrating year for Maryland beekeepers
Last year was an extremely challenging for our managed honey bee colonies here in Maryland. According to the Bee Informed Partnership (BIP), 2016 is the year that losses exceeded 56%, and over a 3 year average, Maryland beekeepers have lost 54% of their total colonies. Maryland has approximately 14,000+ registered honey bee colonies according to Maryland State Agricultural statistics. The average replacement costs per colony is $150, replacement colonies range from $100/package to $200/nuc. This means that beekeepers in Maryland spend over $1.13 million every year to replace approximately 7,600 lost registered honey bee colonies.

This does not include lost revenue, lost labor, or losses in potential business growth that would otherwise be possible by splitting healthy colonies. There are multiple complex reasons for these losses including, but not limited to, the following:

Forage is the basis of a healthy colony’s immune system. Yet, most areas of the state saw very low levels of natural forage and rainfall this year, adversely affecting the colonies’ immunity. Thus, colonies with compromised immune systems succumb to the ravages of mites, viruses, and bacterial infections. To add to this, many beekeepers have seen an increase in pesticide use in the form of lawn and yard spraying, compounded by municipal and private responses to Zika virus in the form of broad spectrum mosquito spraying. Moreover, summer queen failures have become a chronic problem in Maryland, even including queen failures that occur within the first summer after a colony is established, which, historically, would be considered a rarity. Furthermore, the translocation of honey bee colonies is highly problematic as colonies are unable to easily or fully integrate into the environment into which they have been transported.

If managed honey bee losses are this high, how do we think that wild native bee populations are faring? Managed populations are the only populations to which beekeepers have regular access. If managed honey bees are facing the difficulties mentioned above, then it is reasonable to assume that wild native bee populations are suffering in the same ways.

Dr. David Goulson, Elizabeth Nicholls, Cristina Botías, and Ellen L. Rotheray published their research findings in their article, Bee Declines Driven by Combined Stress from Parasites, Pesticides, and Lack of Flowers, suggesting several possible ways to mitigate managed honey bee colony losses:

Bees are subject to numerous pressures in the modern world. The abundance and diversity of flowers has declined; bees are chronically exposed to cocktails of agrochemicals, and they are simultaneously exposed to novel parasites accidentally spread by humans. Climate change is likely to exacerbate these problems in the future. Stressors do not act in isolation; for example, pesticide exposure can impair both detoxification mechanisms and immune responses, rendering bees more susceptible to parasites. It seems certain that chronic exposure to multiple interacting stressors is driving honey bee colony losses and declines of wild pollinators, but such interactions are not addressed by current regulatory procedures, and studying these interactions experimentally poses a major challenge. In the meantime, taking steps to reduce stress on bees would seem prudent; incorporating flower-rich habitat into farmland, reducing pesticide use through adopting more sustainable farming methods, and enforcing effective quarantine measures on bee movements are all practical measures that should be adopted. Effective monitoring of wild pollinator populations is urgently needed to inform management strategies into the future.

Beekeepers here in Maryland have very tough decisions to make. Our current track record for managed honey bee losses is abysmal, in fact the entire Mid-Atlantic region is suffering from catastrophic honey bee losses in managed colonies. Do we make much needed corrections to our management of our colonies or pursue the “same ol’ same ol’” and continue to pay for replacement colonies, which in many cases only exacerbates the situation?

We can make things better for pollinators and give them the best possible chance for survival, but in order to do that, we must all act together to see those changes come to fruition.

Bill Castro

Update on the rusty-patched bumble bee

In related news, due to policy changes in Washington DC, the inclusion of the rusty-patched bumble bee on the EPA Endangered Species list was thwarted one day prior to taking effect. Regardless of the setback, we should not be discouraged. I’m of the belief that environmental protection is up to every individual. After all, the Earth is our home. Indeed, we shouldn’t let issues as important as species conservation be relegated to a government bureaucracy. Instead, each of us can help by caring for the patch we control, no matter how small it is.

Bumble bees, honey bees, and the tiniest sweat bees all need the same things: abundant flowers, clean water, and a safe place to call home. You have no excuse. Plant flowers and get rid of the pesticide. And don’t forget to raise local bees whenever possible: nothing spreads disease faster than shipping bees from place to place. That pertains not only to honey bees, but to all managed species including bumble bees, mason bees, and leafcutting bees. It is not up to the EPA or the Department of Agriculture to save the bees. It is up to us.

Honey Bee Suite

Haunted by losses. Honey bees at hive entrance.

All bees need flowers, water, and a pesticide-free environment. Pixabay public domain photo.



  • So far on Long Island, NY, I lost one of three hives his winter. It’s only February and I am anxiously looking forward to spring for them to be able to forage.

    One thing that government and individuals can do is promote bat houses and allow bats to curb mosquitoes instead of spraying pesticides. I have a bat house with 2 to 4 bats in it during the mosquito season. They eat their weight in mosquitoes every night and I rarely get bit at home. They are not a nuisance because they mind their own business and invisible at night.

    Bees do not fly at night so they would be safe. Curtailing pesticide use would benefit bees as well as man, keeping harmful pesticides out of our environment.

  • Rusty, It seems the honey bee population here in the Mid-Hudson Valley, has never been better (wild and domestic). About 10 years ago I could travel a couple of miles of flowers along the road and not see a honey bee. Now they’re abundant everywhere except in isolated flower patches, several miles from other patches. The reason for these dead spots, I think, is because there aren’t enough early-spring flowers to sustain a colony. Where space is allowed for dandelions and purple dead nettles, they thrive.

  • Bill does not say what percentage of hives he lost – “highest” is probably bad enough. He lists the reasons which contributed to the losses (spraying, the dry, lack of flowers…) but I wonder what the main cause is? He is a TF beekeeper (good on him, I’m too) but unlike us, he has to deal with Varroa. Are mites the main issue? How many hives does Bill have? It is all interesting information but not complete enough to learn from.


  • It is indeed our own responsibility and you have put it well here Rusty. I hope for you Bill and all suffering bee people in Maryland that a better insight comes before it is really too late.

  • Amen Rusty. In Canada the Varroa free island province of Newfoundland is embroiled in a bitter debate on whether to open their borders to bee imports as mobile pollinators cannot find enough local bees to fill their contracts…one assumes partly due to the fact that mobile pollination is a tough life for bees. For their own sake I hope they cooperatively work to increase their quality bee breeding capacity and keep their borders closed.

    Here in my small area, our cross-border bee club is starting a queen breeding and improvement project this year with the long range goal of breeding queens that do well and overwinter well in our area, with the intention of providing such queens to all our local beekeepers, to the benefit of all, including our DCA’s! We will document our progress with the further aim of providing a low-tech template for other small clubs/areas to follow.

    We had an unprecedented failure rate in package queens last year, and this winter appears to have been particularly unkind, probably due to the long drought and attendant dearth of last summer and fall. My colonies were almost empty of pollen in the fall, which is really unusual. I fed sugar cakes and pollen patties all winter as emergency rations.

    We are also planting bee forage everywhere we can, and one member is taking on the task of networking with local neighbourhoods to encourage all home owners plant for pollinators. Bee and pollinator forage is disappearing from our locality.

    • Janet,

      It sounds like your group is doing an excellent job. I love the idea of queen breeding for local use. Here’s hoping that Newfoundland protects it’s borders. It would be such a loss to import Varroa more or less on purpose.

    • Frances,

      The problem is not with you. The problem is my WordPress software or my theme. I’ve spent the better part of two months trying to figure it out and I’m nowhere.

      I’ve posted all your comments. You have to go to the bottom of the post where it says, “No Comments” and click on those words. That will take you to the comment box, and if you scroll UP from there, you will see the comments. That is the issue you as a reader are most likely to encounter. On my end, there are more irritating things. If you go to the “Bee Blog” page right now and look at the current post you will see the title of today’s post. Click it, and it will take you to that post’s page, but it will have a different title. If you don’t think this drives me insane…

      Right now I’m working on a new theme, hoping that may help but I’ve having trouble setting up my development site. I’ll keep working on it till I get it, but no telling how long that may be.

      I will email this to you so you see it.

  • I have said it before and I will say it again and again. It’s time to yank the imports, the exotics and the invasives out of our yards and gardens and begin to replant with native plants. In order for this to be done correctly, you will need to make sure that you are planting the genome specific to your local habitat. Start taking classes, read some books, and this spring, kiss all of that Eurasian stuff good bye and say hello to the land the way it is supposed to look. Don’t have the cash to do a full scale renovation? Step by step. I have been working on my little piece for 20 years, but I am getting there. Even a couple of native plants in your garden (milkweed is a good choice) makes a difference. It’s better for water use, no pesticides needed, the insects love it, the bees love it, the birds love it, the planet loves it and you will sleep better at night knowing that you are doing your part. Together, we can make a huge difference.

  • Regarding the extraordinary losses reported for Maryland, I always look a bit deeper into management practices. Relying solely on IPM and blaming pesticides is a red flag. In today’s environment, managing mites is job one. Not surprising their honey harvest has declined. Maybe a more effective approach to keeping bees?

  • Rusty,

    I have to agree a little with Max here. The Bee Informed research has shown that colony losses without varroa treatments are higher than losses with treatments. The state report for Maryland also shows that both varroa and DMV prevalence are at or above the national average. I am not advocating treatments, it is just the game you play: you avoid treatments in hopes of better bees at the risk of more losses. So by not mentioning his management style nor contrasting his results with other styles is a bit misleading. Still sad news to hear these kind of results for any beekeeper.

    Also didn’t realize the listing of the your patched bumble bee was put on hold. That is a shame. According to maps they are in our area of Virginia, and we do get lots of bumble bees in our yard (they especially love the oregano patch, which we let go to seed). I am hoping to better identify some of them this year, and perhaps we’ll be lucky enough to find the Rusty bee.


      • It would, wouldn’t it! Looking at the distribution, it appears a rusty-patched BB hasn’t been seen in our area for quite a while. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen the two-spotted bumble bee and the common bumble bee in our yard. Will have to keep my eyes (and camera) on the lookout.

  • Rusty thanks for the update. It is refreshing to hear your response to the EPA. We as a people in this country have lost our desire to be responsible and expecte the government to handle everything. Most basic responsibilities are ours.

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