Agriculture — Beekeepers report a 21-percent loss from October through March, several colonies found dead recently across the state

More than one-fifth of all the commercial honeybee hives in Oregon didn’t survive last winter, according to a survey by Oregon State University

Between Oct. 1, 2013, and March 31, Oregon beekeepers reported a 21 percent loss in their colonies. That’s on par with the state average of 22 percent annual losses over the past six JOSH KULLA / WILSONVILLE SPOKESMAN - Natures work under siege -- Bee colonies are in decline for a number of reasons, scientists say, including mites, starvation and exposure to pesticides.

“These are challenging times for beekeeping and we have reason to be alarmed,” said Ramesh Sagili, an entomologist with OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences. He has been conducting honeybee colony loss surveys for the past five years. “While 10 to 15 percent loss of colonies is considered acceptable,” Sagili says, “current rates of decline could drive professional beekeepers out of business.”

To replace lost colonies, beekeepers must split healthy hives of 50,000 bees or more — a process that takes months and adds substantial costs for labor, new queens and equipment. But as a result, the lost colonies are replaced.

The United States is home to 2.6 million managed honey bee colonies, according to the Bee Informed Partnership.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture credits honeybees with pollinating more than $15 billion worth of crops in the United States, including pears, blueberries, cherries, apples, broccoli, mustard, carrots, onions and nut trees.

Bee colonies are in significant decline for a variety of reasons, Sagili says: Varroa mites, which transmit viral diseases to bees; poor nutrition from a restricted diet resulting from large-scale monocropping; and exposure to pesticides when bees forage for nectar and pollen.

“Each of these factors add stress to the bees and compromise their immune systems,” Sagili said.

OSU is home to the Honey Bee Lab, which tests beekeepers’ honeybees for mites, diseases and protein levels for a small fee.

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