Honeybees aren’t going extinct.
They’re not, no matter what has been implied by the media or what you may have seen online. Really. I’ll tell you why.
Commercial beekeepers own 95% of all managed colonies in the US, so when they say there’s a problem with their bees, it sounds like there’s a problem with all bees. Fair enough, if they’re having problems, there must really be a problem, right? Well, there is, no doubt about it. If commercial beekeepers are losing up to 50% of their colonies in a bad year, this certainly seems catastrophic and it is, especially for the beekeeper. Typically, commercial beekeepers may see winter die-off rates of between 25% in a good year and greater than 50% in a very bad year. The numbers aren’t static year to year, just like the weather or even the climate, but it is an accepted part of doing business as a commercial beekeeper, some number of hives just fail during winter no matter how well they are being taken care of. The colder the climate, the worse the winter die-off rate.
Why isn’t this a terrible thing? The first thing you should understand is there aren’t a finite amount of honeybee colonies. New colonies are created every year through a variety of methods; buying packages of bees from breeders, splitting colonies to increase total numbers and even the bees themselves swarming to generate new colonies. Beekeepers see this as a part of doing business, it’s overhead and the more colonies that need to be replaced the larger the cost to their businesses. If a commercial beekeeper has lost 50% or even 25% of all their bees every year and they weren’t replaced, the beekeeper would have an unsustainable business very quickly. So, the media doesn’t tell you about “making increase”, a standard beekeeping practice- creating new colonies. Making up for losses, that’s what they do. Those bees aren’t going extinct, they’re being replaced. In fact, the total numbers of managed colonies in the US has remained stable in recent years, so where is this extinction news coming from?
Well, the beekeepers are doing it. Yes, they are helping to cause the decline in the numbers of colonies through their own methods. Consider what a managed pollination and honey production hive goes through every year; they may travel 5000 miles on the beds of flatbed trailers, hundreds of hives at a time. They may spend a cumulative couple of weeks in transport every year. This is a stress on the bees. Typically, they are driven to almonds in California before the winter frosts have totally subsided. As almonds are a very poor source of nutrition for bees they are fed a sugary syrup called HFCS-42 (42% of fructose), HFCS-55 (55% of fructose), or HFCS-90 (90% of fructose). The HFCS stands for High Fructose Corn Syrup. This keeps the bees in sugar to better keep them out pollinating. Those almond crops are exposed to anti-fungal sprays meant to reduce bloom loss, but they have often been sprayed when bees are active on the blooms, poisoning them in the process. In past years beekeepers have lost large numbers of colonies due to “bad tank mixes”, inappropriately applied pesticide combinations. This is another stress on the bees.
Those same bees may pollinating 3-5 more crops, such as citrus, apples, cherries, etc. until they finally wind up in the Dakotas pollinating sunflowers and alfalfa, generating a honey crop along the way for the beekeeper. During this journey, they may be exposed to poor nutrition, pesticides, pollution- all of which continues to weaken bees.
Finally, enough can’t be said about the Western Honeybee’s main problem, the Varroa mite. These critters are responsible for passing on a multitude of diseases to honeybees, as well as sucking the lifeblood out of young pre-emergent bees. They’re terrible and they have laid waste to many hives since their arrival in the US in the 80’s. To combat this beekeepers employ a number of pesticides into their own hives to help keep the population of varroa mites to a minimum, never actually curing them of the mites. This is standard operating practice, and all commercial bees are subjected to it. Some of these pesticides are long-enduring and still poison bees to this day long after they became ineffective against mites (Coumaphos in beeswax, for example). Pesticides have a residual harm to bees and act as another stress, or stressor,. The bees used in commercial operations would certainly die without the use of these miticides, being nearly totally intolerant of mites and their associated diseases. They aren’t bred to be, the traits beekeepers are looking for is docility, productivity and low swarming behavior. This leads to nice calm stuffed hives ready for pollination contracts, and relatively poor disease and mite resistance. Ironically it seems the same traits that make bees more defensive are the same that help with hygienic behavior and disease resistance. Commercial honeybees are calm productive weaklings. Weak stressed bees die out over winter, plain and simple.
Pile on the stressors and what you have are almost HIV-like symptoms, weakened immune systems, crashing populations, wandering bees… this is what CCD or Colony Collapse Disorder is coming from. There’s never been a “smoking gun” in determining what causes CCD and that’s likely because it’s a multitude of issues that cause general decline in bee health, i.e., stressors.
It’s hard to put the blame on commercial beekeepers, after all they are stewards for 95% of all the colonies in the US. It’s no easy job, it’s fraught with peril and loss if things go poorly. Most commercial operations are family businesses and losses hit them particularly hard. This is also why you’ll never hear commercial beekeepers say they are responsible for the poor health of their bees. It’s hard to blame them for this oversight- it’s their bread and butter. Still, the writing is on the wall and bee losses are tied to over-management of bee colonies. That’s the way the industry works, that’s the agricultural delivery system we have in this country.
How has the media got this so wrong? Eyeball-grabbing headlines like “Honeybees Are In Serious Decline”, poor reporting, an uncritical and critically uninformed public have inflated the story to the point that saying things like “Honeybees aren’t going extinct” almost sounds like heresy. The general public doesn’t seem very interested in knowing the facts about the beekeeping system in the US. There’s a lot to think about in the world and when so many things are going wrong, believing that honeybees are going extinct just seems like a perfectly plausible story, but it isn’t.
Often the truth gets buried in nuance and that’s where the media fails us. It’s failed beekeepers, the beekeeping industry and the public attempting to understand the world around them. Rest easy, honeybees aren’t going extinct.