Virginia has fewer bee colonies but is seeing fewer losses

honey beesThe number of Virginia honey bee colonies declined between the winter of 2015 and the winter of 2016, but a warm winter may have helped more bees survive this year.

According to a survey released May 12 by the National Agricultural Statistics Service, there were 8,000 bee colonies in Virginia on Jan. 1, 2015 owned by professional and amateur beekeepers with more than five hives. As of Jan. 1, 2016, there were 6,500 hives. But 28 percent of the state’s bee colonies were lost over the winter of 2015, compared to only 17 percent this past winter.

“You have to take the weather into context,” said Keith Tignor, Virginia state apiarist with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. “Remember what was going on then (in 2015); it was one of the coldest winters on record.”

Virginia beekeepers had to import 800 colonies and renovate 460 more in 2015. Renovating a colony involves either providing a new queen to a hive or providing new worker bees. Those numbers dropped to 500 new colonies and 130 renovated colonies in 2016.

Colony collapse disorder has been a new challenge to beekeepers in recent years. But Tignor said the real problems in Virginia are insect pests and several other diseases. Sometimes those factors can lead to a hive being abandoned, as is common in colony collapse disorder, he said.

“Colony collapse disorder is not a specific disease. We think it’s more of an accumulation of different diseases and pests that affect bee longevity,” Tignor said. “We also have a number of disorders and maladies, including nosema apis, which affects the adult worker bees. Our data over the past several months shows we’re seeing more signs of that fungus in hives.”

Honey bees are essential pollinators for about one-third of Virginia’s fruit and vegetable crops, so any significant losses are important to farmers and consumers alike. Beehive losses are typically highest in the winter, when food supplies are scarce, Tignor said.

Interest in renewing the supply of bees is so strong in Virginia that the General Assembly established a grant program in 2012 to help new beekeepers start operations. The next round of funding, about $125,000, is due to be dispersed after the new fiscal year starts July 1.

“We’re still accepting applications for that program, but apply early. It’s very popular,” Tignor said.

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