For honey bees, 2023 is potentially a bad year

Closeup of a honey bee pollinating a tree.
A honey bee pollinates a tree.

A massively destructive hurricane in Florida last year, a very stormy winter in California, and higher than average colony losses mean that 2023 is positioned to be a bad year for honey bees.

“I talked with a beekeeper recently who hadn’t lost more than 20% of his colonies in several years but lost 90% of his bees this year,” said Tim Lawrence, a recently retired Washington State University Extension associate professor who worked with the insects. “And he’s far from alone. I’ve heard from many beekeepers suffering high losses this year.”

Lawrence wrote about the potentially bad year for WSU Tree Fruit Extension’s website.

The decrease is likely due to viruses exacerbated by varroa destructor mites, the main cause for honey bee decline, Lawrence said. The mites kill honey bee brood (pupae and larvae), introduce numerous viruses, and severely weaken adult bees and their immune systems, making them more prone to disease.

WSU scientists have several research projects involving varroa mites, honey bee reproduction and mating, plus beekeeping workshops and other supports to help the industry pollinate crops around Washington.

In most years, beekeepers who experienced significant losses would resupply by purchasing the insects from beekeepers in Florida. Unfortunately, the bee population in the Sunshine State took a massive hit from Hurricane Ian last year, limiting the supply.

Generally, the pollinator season starts in late February in California almond groves. Beekeepers from around the country bring their bees west to pollinate these early-blooming trees. But the steady series of atmospheric rivers dumping significant rain on California has limited the number of flying days bees have had to pollinate.

Bees generally fly when temperatures are above 54 degrees and winds aren’t too strong. The limited flying days also impact honey bee queens because they mate in the air. Less flight time means less mating, which means fewer and delayed bees and queens for sale that beekeepers rely upon.

“It’s been brutal,” Lawrence said. “Beekeepers are used to adapting, but getting hit from so many angles is a huge challenge.”

And all that could impact Washington crops that depend on hiring the domesticated pollinators.

“If I had an apple, pear, or cherry orchard, I wouldn’t wait to contact your beekeeper this year,” Lawrence said. “A lot can happen between now and when those crops bloom, but early crops could really be impacted. For growers back east, it’s likely there may not be any bees for the blueberry season.”

On the flip side, the unusually wet winter in California could lead to a phenomenal honey crop.

“Seeing the mountains and hills down there, the snow melt will probably lead to a tremendous flower bloom,” Lawrence said. “There may be fewer bees, but those present will have plenty of food to collect.”

Honey bees can have a big impact on wallets. For consumers, fewer bees for pollinating could lead to fewer apples or cherries in stores. That leads to higher prices for the fruit that does make it to market.

“Bees have had a tough time this year,” Lawrence said. “Beekeepers are good at keeping them going, but it’s the biggest challenge I’ve seen since at least 2005, when we started to witness major losses of honey bee colonies.”

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