Honeybees, that is.
More specifically, the disappearance of the vital species.
According to a recent survey conducted by the Bee Informed Partnership, commercial beekeepers throughout the state of Ohio reported a 49.8 percent loss in their honeybee colonies within the last year.
Nationwide, the 6,128 responding beekeepers reported losing 42.1 percent of the total number of colonies managed between April 2014 and April 2015 — the second highest annual loss to date.
Terry Lieberman-Smith, vice president of the Ohio State Beekeepers Association, said one of the primary causes of the honeybee decline is a reduction in healthy forage.
“As everyone goes toward having a perfectly green yard with not a lot of variety of plants and trees, honeybees have a hard time finding nourishing foods,” said Lieberman-Smith. “They are one of the most diverse pollinators around. Because of that, like humans, they need a wide variety in their diet.”
Just as fast food can be detrimental to the health of humans if consumed in abundance, Lieberman-Smith said homeowners with only almonds or fields of soy in their gardens provide bees with a very limited diet.
She said planting a diverse mixture of bright, colorful plants that last from spring until fall can help keep bees healthier and allow for greater pollination.
“If half the homeowners in a neighborhood made their backyard a food oasis rather than a food desert, it would make a huge positive impact on the environment,” she said. “You’re talking about enriching your whole environment.”
The Varroa mite — also known as the Varroa destructor — has been viewed as the primary culprit of the honeybee die-off in recent years. The external parasite attaches itself to the body of a bee and feeds off of its blood, all the while spreading a deadly virus throughout the colony.
Since the parasite has made its introduction into hives all across the nation, Lieberman-Smith said the Varroa mite has taken away roughly 50 percent of the honeybee population.
“We’re talking about a very small gene pool that’s left,” she said. “So, after a while, we’re expecting the honeybee to still pollinate as they used to without necessarily looking at ways to help their health. We’re expecting them to do more with less — more with fewer bees.”
Lieberman-Smith said the increasing use of outdoor chemicals like pesticides, herbicides and fungicides can also be to blame for the decline in the honeybee population.
“We have become very used to just seeing something and spraying it. We don’t consider the impact on neighborhood plants or water runoffs,” she said. “If we’re exposed to chemicals with detrimental effects, our immune systems can’t handle that as well. The same goes for bees.”
Sue Rhodes, Fostorian and beekeeper for the last five years, said dust from the harmful chemicals can latch on to pollinators and infect the rest of the colony when they return.
“It really kills them,” Rhodes said. “But the bees are very smart. They try to keep out the bees that have (chemical dust) on them, but some get in and it gets on other bees and causes them to die.”
Both Rhodes and Lieberman-Smith suggest homeowners refrain from using outdoor chemicals or check with a local garden center about natural substances for getting rid of pests.
“Start with the softest attack and move up the scale,” Lieberman-Smith said. “Don’t start with the most deadly chemical first.”
The startling decline in the honeybee population is not just affecting beekeepers, but consumers as well.
Ohio farmers rely on honeybees to pollinate more than 70 types of crops, including almonds, apples, oranges, strawberries, cucumbers and blueberries. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, honeybees pollinate $14 billion worth of crops each year.
With the number of colonies dwindling in recent years, Lieberman-Smith said the cost of the products they help produce has skyrocketed.
“Consider the avian flu. It’s a horrible, devastating thing,” she said. “Look at what has happened to egg prices on just the threat that they’re going to lose all of their laying hens. When pork producers were concerned a few years ago that they were going to lose 1 percent of all piglets, the price of pork shot up. That’s just 1 percent.”
Colony losses were far from consistent state to state. In fact, several states experienced losses in excess of 60 percent — including many Midwestern states like Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and Pennsylvania.
Hawaii reported the lowest total annual colony loss of the 2014-2015 year with 13.9 percent.
Lieberman-Smith said the harsh winter of this past year is likely the reason for Midwestern states reporting the highest colony losses, but the numbers would be much worse if more beekeepers participated in the survey.
“There are over 4,500 beekeepers in the state of Ohio. So, that tells you not a lot of people responded to the survey,” she said. “The more beekeepers who participate, the stronger the data will become. Some people just don’t like to give the bad news. I think a lot of people feel if their colonies didn’t do well that it’s a reflection of them. Most of the time, that’s not the case.”
“I know it was an interesting winter and it was definitely a dismal spring for a lot of beekeepers,” she added. “Their bees came out of winter so-so, but failed to make it to spring. During the winter, bees can’t get out and forage so they can’t let the queen lay. A lot of colonies really suffered this spring.”
Two years ago, Lieberman-Smith suffered a significant loss to her honeybee colonies. Since then, she said she’s changed a lot of her own behaviors to help make her environment more pollinator friendly.
“There comes a breaking point, so to speak,” Lieberman-Smith said. “We haven’t come to it yet, but if both beekeepers and the general population don’t work to change their ways, it could negatively impact our environment and take us a long time to recover.”
The Bee Informed Partnership, which conducted the survey in collaboration with the Apiary Inspectors of America (AIA) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), receives the majority of its funding from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, USDA.