The number of honey-producing bee colonies in the U.S. rose 7.4 percent last year and honey production was up 20 percent, the Department of Agriculture said.

About 2.684 million colonies were reported by beekeepers with five or more hives in 2010, the USDA said Friday in a report. Honey production rose to 65.5 pounds per colony, up 12 percent from 2009, with overall output at 176 million pounds. The average price at the private and retail levels was $1.603 a pound, an all-time high and up 8.8 percent from the previous record last year, the USDA said.

The higher honeybee numbers are a response to Colony Collapse Disorder, a syndrome of undetermined cause that has led to increased bee deaths during winter months, according to Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an entomologist with Pennsylvania State University in University Park. Beekeepers are keeping more bees on hand during the year to withstand higher losses in the winter dormancy season, he said.

"It's a sign the situation is still strange," he said. Since it was first identified in 2006, Colony Collapse Disorder has raised the annual late-year bee death rate from 15 percent to 20 percent of all hives to around a third.

Bees are essential for the health of pollinator-dependent crops, from almonds to blueberries. Fruit-pollinated products are found in items such as Haagen-Dazs ice cream from General Mills Inc.