Friday, September 2, 2016

The Myth of the Bee-pocalypse

By Shawn Regan, writing for FEE. Shawn Regan is the Director of Publications and a Research Fellow at PERC.
"But here’s something you probably haven’t heard: there are more honeybee colonies in the United States today than there were when colony collapse disorder began in 2006. In fact, according to data released in March by the Department of Agriculture, U.S. honeybee-colony numbers are now at a 20-year high. And those colonies are producing plenty of honey: U.S. honey production is also at a 10-year high.



Almost no one has reported this, but it’s true. You can browse the USDA reports yourself. Since colony collapse disorder began in 2006, there has been virtually no detectable effect on the total number of honeybee colonies in the United States. Nor has there been any significant impact on food prices or production.

How can this be? In short, commercial beekeepers have adapted to higher winter honeybee losses by actively rebuilding their colonies. This is often done by splitting healthy colonies into multiple hives and purchasing new queen bees to rebuild the lost hives. Beekeepers purchase queen bees through the mail from commercial breeders for as little as $15 to $25 and can produce new broods rather quickly. Other approaches include buying packaged bees (about $55 for 12,000 worker bees and a fertilized queen) or replacing the queen to improve the health of the hive. By doing so, beekeepers are maintaining healthy and productive colonies — all part of a robust and extensive market for pollination services.

Economists Randal Rucker and Walter Thurman have carefully documented how these pollination markets work and how they respond to problems like bee disease. As it turns out, they work pretty well. A 2012 analysis by Rucker and Thurman found almost no economic impact from colony collapse disorder. (If anything, you might be paying 2.8 cents more for a can of Smokehouse Almonds.) They conclude that beekeepers are “savvy entrepreneurs” who have proven able to “adapt quickly to changing market conditions” with almost no impact on consumers.

What about beekeepers themselves? Rebuilding lost colonies takes extra work, but so far most beekeepers seem adept at doing so. Rucker and Thurman find that the prices for new queen bees have remained stable, even with increased demand due to higher winter losses. Pollination fees, the fees beekeepers charge farmers to provide pollination services, have increased for some crops such as almonds. But these higher pollination fees have helped beekeepers offset the additional costs of rebuilding their hives.

The White House downplays these extensive markets for pollination services. The task force makes no mention of the remarkable resilience of beekeepers. Instead, we’re told the government will address the crisis with an “all hands on deck” approach, by planting pollinator-friendly landscaping, expanding public education and outreach, and supporting more research on bee disease and potential environmental stressors. (To the disappointment of many environmental groups, the plan stops short of banning neonicotinoids, a type of pesticide some believe are contributing to bee deaths.)

This is not to deny that beekeeping faces challenges. Today, most experts believe there is no one single culprit for honeybee losses, but rather a multitude of factors. Modern agricultural practices can create stress for honeybees. Commercial beekeepers transport their colonies across the country each year to pollinate a variety of fruits, vegetables, and nuts. This can weaken honeybees and increase their susceptibility to diseases and parasites.

But this is not the first time beekeepers have dealt with bee disease, and they do not stand idly by in the face of such challenges. The Varroa mite, a blood-sucking bee parasite introduced in 1987, has been especially troublesome. Yet beekeepers have proven resilient. 

Somehow, without a national strategy to help them, beekeepers have maintained their colonies and continued to provide the pollination services our modern agricultural system demands.

“What are we doing on bees?” the president reportedly asked his advisers in 2013. “Are we doing enough?” With U.S. honeybee colonies now at a 20-year high, you have to wonder: is our national pollination strategy a solution in search of a crisis?"

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