Montana’s Bees and the Whole Country’s Are In Good Shape
BY SHAWN REGAN
By now, you’ve probably heard about the plight of the honey-bees. In 2006, beekeepers began reporting above-average losses to their colonies over the winter. Within no time, the media was abuzz over “colony collapse disorder,” a mysterious affliction causing entire hives to die or simply vanish. A number of factors have been blamed, including parasites, pesticides, genetically modified crops, and even cell phone signals. But so far scientists have been unable to pinpoint a single cause.
The media hype was hard to miss. A Time magazine cover story foretold of “a world without bees.” NPR claimed that bee declines would cause a “crisis point for crops.” Others warned of an impending “bee-pocalypse” or “beemaggedon.” Earlier this year, the Obama administration jumped on the bandwagon, announcing a “national strategy” to promote honeybee health. The plan aims to reduce honeybee losses and create seven million acres of pollinator-friendly habitat with more than $82 million in federal funding.
But here’s the story you probably haven’t heard: Today, there are more honeybee colonies in the United States than at any point in the last 20 years. In fact, according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, honeybee colony numbers have largely remained stable since colony collapse disorder was first reported back in 2006. And those colonies are getting the job done. U.S. honey production is at a 10-year high, crop yields are steady or rising, and food prices are unaffected.
With all of the media hysteria over dying bees, how could this be? In short, commercial beekeepers have actively rebuilt their colonies in response to increased die-offs from colony collapse disorder. It’s a remarkable story of the resilience of beekeepers and their ability to adapt to bee disease—but it’s a story that has been almost completely ignored by the media.
Here are the facts: It’s true that honeybees have been dying in higher numbers over the winter—increasing from an average of 15 percent to more than 30 percent over the last decade. But what’s left unreported is how beekeepers have adapted to these higher mortality rates. Total U.S. honeybee colony numbers have remained steady or above the levels they were before colony collapse disorder hit the scene in 2006. The local data are no different—in fact, colony numbers in Montana have increased 50 percent since 1990.
Far from standing idly by while their colonies perish, commercial beekeepers have adapted to higher winter mortality rates by rebuilding their colonies. Rebuilding colonies is a routine part of modern beekeeping, and it’s done in several different ways. The most common method involves splitting healthy colonies into multiple hives. The new hives, known as “nucs,” each require a new queen bee, which can be purchased from commercial queen breeders for about $15 to $25 each.
Many beekeepers actually split their hives late in the year in anticipation of winter losses. These 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. By doing so, beekeepers are maintaining healthy and productive colonies—all part of a robust and extensive market for pollination services.
“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,” write economists Randal Rucker and Wally Thurman in a recent report for PERC, an environmental policy research institute based in Bozeman. Looking through a number of economic measures, the researchers came to a surprising conclusion: Colony collapse disorder has had practically no economic impact.
Beekeepers are “savvy entre-preneurs” who have proven able to “adapt quickly to changing market conditions,” according to Rucker and Thurman. As a result, the prices of crops pollinated by honeybees have remained virtually unaffected. Even almond prices, one of the crops most reliant on honeybees, are unaffected. At most, Rucker and Thurman estimate that you might be paying 2.8 cents more for a pound of almonds—hardly a crisis for crops or consumers.
But what about beekeepers themselves? Rebuilding lost colonies requires some extra work, but most beekeepers seem adept at doing so without much trouble. Rucker and Thurman find that the prices for new queen bees have remained stable, even though beekeepers are demanding more of them to replenish lost colonies. Pollination fees, the fees beekeepers charge farmers to provide pollination services, have increased for some crops such as almonds. But these higher fees have helped beekeepers offset the extra costs of rebuilding their lost hives.
This is not the first time beekeepers have dealt with bee disease or winter mortality. The Varroa mite, a blood-sucking bee parasite, has been a scourge of beekeepers since the 1980s. But beekeepers do not stand idly by in the face of such challenges. They adapt and innovate. While colony collapse disorder is presenting new challenges, the resourcefulness and perseverance of beekeepers remains.
The Obama administration’s plan seems to ignore the resilience of beekeepers. Instead, the White House calls for an “all hands on deck” approach to solve the pollination crisis. The government’s “national strategy” will plant pollinator-friendly landscaping, expand public education and outreach, and support more research on bee disease.
Hannah Nordhaus, a journalist and author of the book The Beekeeper’s Lament, has said that scare stories about honeybee die-offs should serve as a cautionary tale to 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 2011. Nonetheless, the media continues to spread doom and gloom, ignoring the perseverance of beekeepers in maintaining honeybee colony numbers.
“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 for PERC. The ability of beekeepers to adapt has kept food on the shelves, honey in the cupboard, and honeybees buzzing—just don’t count on the media to report it.
Shawn Regan, a former Olympic National Park backcountry ranger, is a Research Fellow at PERC in Bozeman, Mont. He holds degrees in Applied Economics (MSU) and in economics and environmental science (Berry College).