ORLANDO, Fla., May 20 (UPI) -- Honey production in the United States rose in 2018 for the first time in five years, but not because bees have turned a corner on numerous threats.
Production was up 2 percent in 2018 to 152 million pounds, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture released last week.
But the primary reason for more honey was that large producers increased the number of bee colonies to meet rising demand for natural sweeteners.
The number of colonies jumped 4 percent to 2.8 million. The amount of honey produced by each colony actually dropped 2 percent to 54.4 pounds.
"Beekeepers are working harder than ever to keep up with the growing demand, while bees are struggling," Margaret Lombard, chief executive officer of the National Honey Board, told UPI. "Consumption is at an all-time high right now because natural sweeteners are preferred more and more, and there are a lot of natural benefits."
A study by University of California researchers presented in October said the United States is meeting growing demand partly by importing more honey from nations like India and Vietnam.
State production varied widely across the country, according to the USDA report. Florida saw a boost in production and yield per colony for honey, while Wisconsin saw a small drop in the number of colonies and a record low in production.
Bees are beleaguered by illness, parasites and environmental threats including pesticides, according to the National Honey Board and other beekeeping organizations.
Large-scale row-cropping of corn and soybeans in the Midwest, along with modern farming methods, have resulted in fewer types of nectar and pollen available to bees.
"Beekeepers are definitely trying to ramp up operations and have more hives to increase production," said Douglas Hauke, a large-scale honey producer and beekeeper based in Marshfield, Wisc. He also sits on the USDA's National Honey Board and manages 3,400 colonies of bees.
"Unfortunately, the bees are very sick still. It's hard for them to be productive," Hauke said. "They don't have good nutrition that they used to get from smaller and more diverse farms."
The USDA counts only honey producers with five or more colonies (hives), and only those who answered survey questions. It doesn't include hobbyists or wild colonies.
The report said U.S. honey wholesale prices declined 2 percent during 2018 to $2.16 per pound.
Florida added 10,000 more bee colonies to reach 215,000 total in 2018. Yield per colony also rose to 49 pounds from 43 pounds in 2017. That resulted in a jump of honey production in Florida to 10.5 million pounds in 2018 from from 8.8 million pounds the year before.
Bees in the Sunshine State benefit from a broader variety of crops and flowers, and recent mild winters, said Chris Stalder, a beekeeper from the Orlando area and coordinator of the speakers bureau for the Florida State Beekeepers Association.
"Here in Central Florida, I'm surrounded by people with great flower gardens, and some butterfly gardens, and lakes that prevent any chilly nights from getting near freezing," Stalder said.
In Wisconsin, the number of colonies dropped by 2,000 to 51,000, while yield plummeted from 56 pounds to 45 pounds per colony. The result was production declining from 2.96 million pounds to 2.3 million pounds.
According to the USDA report, the biggest producing state, California, saw numbers unchanged in 2018 for colonies, yield and production at 335,000, 41 pounds and 13.7 million pounds, respectively.