We all have that friend or family member who completely ‘freaks out’ whenever a bee is nearby. Aside from the threat of anaphylaxis, why do bees instill so much fear in so many? I recall one summer when I was coaching a baseball team of 12-year-old boys. The group was warming up, playing catch in the outfield when a swarm of bees appeared from a hole in the ground. I had never seen the boys run faster or scream louder. Experiences like this make us wonder, ‘Do we really need bees in the world?’ What is the value of bees to our environment?
Of course there are many different types of bees, but in this article, I’d like to focus in on the honeybee… an important, and in some cases essential, pollinator for crops.
While honeybees are one of the leading natural contributors to agriculture, they seem to be one of the least appreciated.
Honeybees produce two products, honey and wax. U.S. honey production has been valued at more than $300 million for the past several years and is the largest in the Dakotas, Montana, and California, which together represent roughly half of the total.[i]
While honey and wax are important products, the greater value of honeybees is in their ability to increase pollination of plants. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), bees of all sorts pollinate approximately 75 percent of the fruits, nuts and vegetables grown in the U.S., and one out of every four bites of food people take is courtesy of bee pollination. In total, bee pollination is responsible for more than $15 billion in increased crop value each year.[ii] In the U.S., more than 100 different crops rely to some degree on pollination services provided by bees, including the majority of high-value crops that contribute to healthy diets.
In fact, honeybees are so important to agriculture, they are often trucked around the country during pollination season to help farmers grow their crops. For example, each winter, beekeepers send hives to California to pollinate the almond trees, charging rent while the hives are in the trees. Growers rent nearly two million colonies, which represents over 60% of the nation’s domestic bees. The annual cost for renting the bees is about $300 million, but the California almond economy is worth around $11 billion[iii] so it’s worth the spend.
It’s a misconception that the honeybee is on the endangered species list and that extinction is imminent. In recent years, the topic of drastically declining bee populations became a hot topic and Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) ― thought to be brought on by pesticides in the agriculture industry―was deemed the culprit. The American Council on Science and Health has stated: “CCD, which lasted for about 3-5 years, is a sudden phenomenon in which the majority of worker bees mysteriously disappear.”[iv] A lasting negative impact to the honeybee populations, or ‘beepocolypse’ was found to be inaccurate. A 2015 article in The Washington Post[v] highlighted USDA data indicating an uptrend in bee numbers. The article showed that the honeybee colonies had risen from 2.4 million in 2006, the year CCD was identified, to a 20-year high of 2.7 million in 2014. Furthermore, a 2018 article from The American Council on Science and Health showed that honeybee populations in Canada, in the European Union, and worldwide were increasing even more than in the U.S.
Recent data shows the number of U.S. colonies has increased further since then, to 2.8 million in both 2018 and 2019.i
What’s the real threat to bees?
The media often seeks to convince readers that there is still a major issue with hive health. Dr. Ieuan Evans, an expert plant pathologist and horticulturalist, said, “The furor over Colony Collapse Disorder has largely been blamed on pesticides; bees bringing the chemical home to the brood. When colonies die out or show very poor vigor or honey production, the easiest target to blame is not these natural causes but pesticides, in particular, insecticides. However, more likely, it is due to a combination of bee diseases… and pests.”[vi]
Per USDA data, the most recent figures indicate lost colonies, or “Deadout” losses of approximately 253,000 colonies in the 2nd quarter of 2020. The figure represents an 8% loss of the total. Losses attributed to CCD were a fraction of losses, at 56,000 colonies. Overall, CCD attributed losses were less than 2% of total colonies.
Although recent figures indicate that CCD losses were somewhat elevated in the 1st quarter of 2020 per USDA data and several recent media news publications; as any 12 year old ball player begins to learn, it’s not the score in the 1st or 2nd inning that counts but the one at the end of the game. While the full 2020 data is yet to occur, it is important to note that the 4th quarter of 2019 indicated the lowest 4th quarter losses in the last five years. As the data suggests, there does not appear to be significant declines in overall colony numbers.[vii]
So, if 20-30% of bees typically do not survive the winter each year, how are populations being maintained? Beekeepers have two ways of doing this, dividing one colony into two, and buying more bees. Beekeepers have been using these standard practices since commercial beekeeping became common in the US and the world.iv
The bottom line
Bees are a key contributor to our environment and food system. Honeybees are essential for pollination of many crops, and despite what you may have read, populations are holding their own. Bees made a youth baseball team’s practice an experience that the boys will never forget. My hope is that the lesson they learned is that the bees only sting when they are threatened, and they are a key partner in producing much of the food we enjoy every day.
[i] USDA-NASS: Quick Stats
[ii] U.S. Geological Survey: Why are bees important
[iii] InHomelandSecurity.com: A Critical Component of Our Agriculture System: Honey Bees
[iv] American Council on Science and Health: The Bee Apocalypse Was Never Real; Here’s Why
[v] The Washington Post: Call off the bee-pocalypse: U.S. honeybee colonies hit a 20-year high
[vi] Grainews: Facts about bees, birds are next
[vii] AGDAILY: Are honey bees endangered? Here’s the truth of the matter