Honeybees And Drought—What's At Stake?

Oct 23, 2018

The effects of the current drought in Colorado are hard to miss—water levels are down in rivers and reservoirs. Hay prices skyrocketed over the summer. Wildfires have been fueled by dry conditions and a lack of moisture. But the drought has also caused problems for pollinators, specifically, honeybees. 91.5 KRCC’s Abigail Beckman spoke with Mike Halby of the Pikes Peak Beekeepers Association about how honeybees - both wild domestic - fare when things dry out…

On how honey bees are doing right now

This year, they’re struggling. Early on, before we did get the rain in the summer, it was so dry that the plants weren’t producing any nectar and there wasn’t anything out there for them to forage on. So, we were feeding them sugar syrup to replace the nectar. There are also commercially produced pollen supplements on the market, which the bees will collect and store as pollen.

Mike Halby with the Pikes Peak Beekeepers Association.
Credit Abigail Beckman / 91.5 KRCC

Comparing the current drought's impact on honeybees to conditions in 2002

This year is significantly better, although, not good. From the drought we had then, we lost an awful lot of our feral colonies. We judge that based on the number of swarms we collect. Prior to that, we would collect somewhere between 30 and 45 swarms a year. That particular year, or the year after that, it was at least cut down by half during that time frame. There wasn’t food out them to collect to store for the winter and they starved.

On the environmental impact of losing honeybees

Statistically, researchers have told us that one out of every three bites of food that a human consumes, there has been a pollinator—a lot of times a honeybee—involved in the production of that particular foodstuff.

On how domesticated and feral honeybees and survive in a drought

Unfortunately, in a lot of circumstances they do not. They work very, very hard at collecting the food they need to store for the winter. They will range anywhere from their hive location to one to three miles on average. Sometimes out as far as 12, but that’s kind of counterproductive because any nectar they collect out there they burn for energy flying home. But they do the best they can. If you have a hive living in a tree and it happens to be adjacent to an urban area, they’ll probably do alright. But a colony that’s out on its own, so to speak, it’s a gamble. There may be food there, there may not.

On other pressures honeybees face

There’s a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids that get into the plants and they stay there for long periods of time. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Agriculture are looking at banning them; they've been banned completely in Europe because of the damage that they do. They get into the pollen and the nectar and, essentially, it’s a low level of poison that the bees end up transporting back and when the level gets high enough it can kill the colony.

NOAA's Climate Prediction Center anticipates a wetter than normal winter for most of Southern Colorado
Credit NOAA

On how the above-average moisture expected this winter could impact honeybees

Over the course of the winter, the increased moisture will normally come in the form of snow which will then melt into the ground. It won’t have an immediate impact because in the wintertime the bees pretty much go dormant. Where it will give us a big advantage is next spring because there will be moisture in the ground and plants will be able to produce nectar as soon as the temperature range gets right. It will be a lot better for the bees.

On what it’s like, as a beekeeper, to lose a hive

It’s very disappointing. Probably about my fourth or five year as a beekeeper I lost a colony to a pest that we don’t see very often called tracheal mites. Going out there and opening up a hive and finding all kinds of dead bees is just short of heartbreaking.