Monday, October 6, 2014
The media is abuzz once again with stories about dying bees. According to a new report from the USDA, scientists have been unable to pinpoint the cause of colony collapse disorder (CCD), the mysterious affliction causing honey bees to disappear from their hives. Possible factors include parasites, viruses, and a form of pesticide known as neonicotinoids. Whatever the cause, the results of a recent beekeeper survey suggest that the problem is not going away. For yet another year, nearly one-third of US honey bee colonies did not make it through the winter.
Given the variety of crops that rely on honey bees for pollination, the colony collapse story is an important one. But if you were to rely on media reports alone, you might believe that honey bees are in short supply. NPR recently declared that we may have reached “a crisis point for crops.” Others warned of an impending “beepocalypse” or a “beemageddon.”
In a rush to identify the culprit of the disorder, many journalists have made exaggerated claims about the impacts of CCD. Most have uncritically accepted that continued bee losses would be a disaster for America’s food supply. Others speculate about the coming of a second “silent spring.” Worse yet, many depict beekeepers as passive, unimaginative onlookers that stand idly by as their colonies vanish.
This sensational reporting has confused rather than informed discussions over CCD. Yes, honey bees are dying in above average numbers, and it is important to uncover what’s causing the losses, but it hardly spells disaster for bees or America’s food supply.
Consider the following facts about honey bees and CCD.
For starters, US honey bee colony numbers are stable, and they have been since before CCD hit the scene in 2006. In fact, colony numbers were higher in 2010 than any year since 1999. How can this be? Commercial beekeepers, far from being passive victims, have actively rebuilt their colonies in response to increased mortality from CCD. Although average winter mortality rates have increased from around 15% before 2006 to more than 30%, beekeepers have been able to adapt to these changes and maintain colony numbers.
Rebuilding colonies is a routine part of modern beekeeping. The most common method involves splitting healthy colonies into multiple hives. The new hives, known as “nucs,” require a new queen bee, which can be purchased readily from commercial queen breeders for about $15-$25 each. Many beekeepers split their hives late in the year in anticipation of winter losses. The new hives quickly produce a new brood and often replace more bees than are lost over the winter. Other methods of rebuilding colonies 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.
“The state of the honey bee population—numbers, vitality, and economic output—are the products of not just the impact of disease but also the economic decisions made by beekeepers and farmers,” economists Randal Rucker and Walter Thurman write in a summary of their working paper on the impacts of CCD. Searching through a number of economic measures, the researchers came to a surprising conclusion: CCD has had almost no discernible economic impact.
But you don’t need to rely on their study to see that CCD has had little economic effect. Data on colonies and honey production are publicly available from the USDA. Like honey bee numbers, US honey production has shown no pattern of decline since CCD was first detected. In 2010, honey production was 14% greater than it was in 2006. (To be clear, US honey production and colony numbers are lower today than they were 30 years ago, but as Rucker and Thurman explain, this gradual decline happened prior to 2006 and cannot be attributed to CCD).
What about the prices of queen bees and packaged bees? Because of higher winter losses, beekeepers are forced to purchase more packaged queen and worker bees to rebuild their lost hives. Yet even these prices seem unaffected. Commercial queen breeders are able to rear large numbers of queen bees quickly, often in less than a month, putting little to no upward pressure on bee prices following CCD.
And what about the prices consumers pay for crops pollinated by honey bees? Are these skyrocketing along with fears of the beepocalypse? Rucker and Thurman find that the cost of CCD on almonds, one of the most important crops from a honey bee pollinating perspective, is trivial. The implied increase in the shelf price of a pound of Smokehouse Almonds is a mere 2.8 cents, and the researchers consider that to be an upper-bound estimate of the impact on fruits and vegetables.
There is, however, one measure that has been significantly affected by CCD—and that’s the pollination fees beekeepers charge almond producers. These fees have more than doubled in recent years, though the fees began rising a few years before CCD was reported. Rucker and Thurman attribute a portion of this increase to the onset of CCD. But even this impact has a bright side: For many beekeepers, the increase in almond pollination fees has more than offset the costs they have incurred rebuilding their lost colonies.
Overcoming CCD is not without its challenges, but beekeepers have thus far proven themselves adept at navigating such changing conditions. Honey bees have long been afflicted with a variety of diseases. The Varroa mite, a blood-thirsty bee parasite, has been a scourge of beekeepers since the 1980s. While CCD has resulted in larger and more mysterious losses, the resourcefulness of beekeepers remains.
Hannah Nordhaus, author of The Beekeeper’s Lament, warned that the scare stories evoked by CCD should serve as a cautionary tale to environmental journalists. “By engaging in simplistic and sometimes misleading environmental narratives—by exaggerating the stakes and brushing over the inconvenient facts that stand in the way of foregone conclusions—we do our field, and our subjects, a disservice,” she wrote in her 2011 essay “An Environmental Journalist’s Lament.”
“The overblown response to CCD in the media stems from a failure to appreciate the resilience of markets in accommodating shocks of various sorts,” write Rucker and Thurman. The ability of beekeepers and other market forces to adapt has kept food on the shelves, honey in the cupboard, and honey bees buzzing. Properly understood, the story of CCD is not one of doom and gloom, but one of the triumph and perseverance of beekeepers.