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Beekeepers Reported Losing 42 Percent Of Honeybee Colonies Last Summer


We're going to take a moment now to talk about what's happening to honeybees. We first learned about the term colony collapse disorder, or CCD, about a decade ago when there was an increase in the mass die-off of honeybees. The rate of colony collapse did slow down, giving beekeepers some hope. But results from a new survey, sponsored in part by the Department of Agriculture, is causing a fresh round of alarm. The survey says during last summer - summer - when bees should be happiest and healthiest, die-offs spiked again. To talk more is Gene Brandi. He's a beekeeper and vice president of the American Beekeeping Federation. Welcome to the program.

GENE BRANDI: Thanks, Audie. Glad to be here.

CORNISH: So to give people a sense of the numbers here, 5,000 of your fellow beekeepers reported losing 42 percent of their colonies between April 2014 to this April. In the previous period, they lost 34 percent. So I mean, do these numbers fit with what you've actually seen on the ground there in Central California?

BRANDI: Actually, the numbers may be a bit conservative. I certainly know a lot of beekeepers who lost more than that.

CORNISH: And beekeepers don't just collect honey, right? Help us understand how you make your livelihood keeping bees.

BRANDI: Well, the greatest benefit that bees have to our American agricultural system and to the food supply is in the pollination of crops, and there is probably over 80 crops in the nation that require honeybees for pollination. All of the berry crops - the blueberries and cranberries, raspberries, blackberries - require bees - cherries, apples, plums, avocados. We need between 80 and 90 percent of the nation's available commercial bees to pollinate almonds in California. There's just dozens and dozens of crops that would not be here at all without the pollinating activities of bees.

CORNISH: So beekeepers don't just collect honey. They also, I guess, rent the bees to farmers?

BRANDI: Yes, we do. Getting paid up to set bees on agricultural crops for pollination is a major portion of most beekeepers' income.

CORNISH: So given what we've talked about here and the fact that colony collapse disorder has been an issue for some time, can you talk about how you and your customers have been coping? I mean, what are the workarounds or alternatives that people have had to adopt in these recent times?

BRANDI: Well, in the case of almonds, it takes pretty close to 1.7 million colonies that are needed just to pollinate the almonds in California, and we certainly need to import the majority of the bees needed for pollination from other states. And actually, with my own business, my son and I lease bees from beekeepers in the Midwest and even from New England just because of the lack of available bees from other places.

CORNISH: Given what you've described these last few years, what do you have to do differently to survive and to improve your hives?

BRANDI: Well, it certainly takes a lot more intensive hive management to keep the hives alive and healthy. And often times, we need to replace queens and we purchase queens from queen breeders. And actually, right now, queen bees are costing $21 to $23 apiece. So queen bees have never been more expensive, but they've never been more in-demand.

CORNISH: Some of the factors that have been reported as contributing to the die-offs include use of certain pesticides, also a kind of parasite. Do any of these factors also affect those queen bees and the breeders there?

BRANDI: I would say that any of the factors that affect the colony's ability to thrive and survive also affect the queen's. There's no doubt that the varroa mites, the exposure to certain pesticides, the nutritional issues that we're dealing with all impact the queen.

CORNISH: How has this fundamentally changed the business? Have you had friends in the business who were no longer in it because of this crisis? You know, what do they say?

BRANDI: Well, yes, I do know quite a few people that threw in the towel - that had losses that were too big to recover from. And it's sad, but that's the reality. So those of us that are still in the business are the survivors, if you will.

CORNISH: That's Gene Brandi. He's a beekeeper in Central California. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

BRANDI: You're very welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.