Something is killing the honey bees of Maryland.
Close to 60 percent of the managed hives died last fall and over the winter — about twice the national average, according to the state bee inspector and local keepers.
"I had a healthy hive that produced 50 pounds of honey last year, and we were anticipating another great year," said Stephen Christianson, a Mount Washington beekeeper of three years. "Then, they were just gone. It took my breath away."
Some blame inexperience on the part of the beekeepers, most of whom tend their hives as a hobby, coupled with a bad winter.
But others blame a brew of pesticides and other toxins that threatens to not only wipe out the bees — which are essential to agriculture, from large farms to backyard gardens — but also other pollinators such as butterflies.
"There's no better way to kill every pollinator in the area than to put this on what they eat," said Steve McDaniel, a 35-year beekeeper and retired chemist who lives in Carroll County, holding a can of insecticide meant to protect flowers. "This is a war on bees."
A national report issued today by the Bee Informed Partnership, a collaboration of state and federal agencies, confirms that six of the last seven winters have been particularly deadly for honey bees.
The industry considers a loss rate of 15 percent to be acceptable. Last winter, the mortality rate among all U.S. beekeepers was 31.1 percent, an increase of 42 percent over the previous year. When mostly backyard beekeepers were polled, the mortality rate jumped to 45 percent.
"Losing 30 percent of the bees over the last seven years is pretty alarming if you're a beekeeper," said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a research scientist at the University of Maryland and one of the authors of the report. "Beekeepers can't sustain that kind of loss forever."
In Maryland a robust honey bee population is key to flourishing farms. The agriculture department estimates that crops valued in excess of $40 million — apples, melons, berries and pumpkins — require or benefit from honey bee pollination.
The unexplained death of millions of bees makes government officials and regulators here and abroad uneasy. The European Union voted last week to suspend the use of three pesticides containing neonicotinoids, a nerve agent, on flowering crops for two years.
Bayer CropScience, the German maker of one of the leading pesticides containing neonicotinoids, criticised the E.U. vote as a "set-back for technology, innovation and sustainability" that will result in "crop yield losses, reduced food quality and loss of competitiveness for European agriculture."
After the E.U. vote, the Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency released a study that acknowledged the decline of the honey bee population but warned against jumping to conclusions. The report said multiple factors are to blame for colony declines, including parasites and disease, pesticides, poor nutrition and genetics.
Jerry Fischer, the Maryland bee inspector, listed another factor: "management."
The state has 1,782 registered beekeepers who together own more than 13,000 hives, also called colonies. Of that total, 68 percent tend at most two hives.
"It's a hobby. It's not a priority. It's not an income that's going to sustain you. The bees die and you buy some more. That's the mindset," said Fischer, who has been a keeper for more than 60 years. "They don't want to admit they've done something wrong."
McDaniel, who lost 13 of his 20 colonies, bristled at that characterization.
"This is the worst I've seen in 35 years. We didn't all get stupid at once. I don't know what it is, but it isn't our stupidity," said McDaniel, holding part of a hive that was once thriving.
The frame is one of four or five that sit inside a wooden box that constitutes the hive. Dead bees are clustered around their queen at one end of the frame, away from a nourishing glob of honey.
"They were well nourished and cared for, but they couldn't even keep themselves warm," McDaniel said quietly. "They starved and died."