The Bees Are Better, But They're Not All Right

Total population collapse? No. Weaker insects? Yes. Problematic pesticides? Probably.

(Bloomberg View) -- Remember when all the bees were dying? When we were headed for, as Time magazine put it in a cover story in 2013, "A World Without Bees"?

I do remember that, so I was pleasantly surprised to see this headline earlier this month: "Bees Are Bouncing Back From Colony Collapse Disorder."

The bees got better! Great! Now we can all find some other looming environmental disaster to freak out about.

The rest of the article by Bloomberg's Alan Bjerga didn't entirely support that assessment, though. Yes, a U.S. Department of Agriculture survey had found that the number of commercial honeybee colonies was up over last year and that the percentage of colonies lost was down. But then there was a beekeeper telling Bjerga that his bee colonies were a lot weaker than they used to be, and an entomologist saying that while colony collapse disorder was "a blip in the history of beekeeping," that's because it's been "vastly overshadowed by diseases, recognizable parasites and diagnosable physiological problems."

So that made me curious. Now, after a couple of days of study, I can report that:

  1. Yeah, maybe the honeybees are doing a little better, but not much.
  2. Colony collapse disorder, narrowly defined, was never the main problem.
  3. Honeybees were never on the brink of extinction.
  4. Some native bee species in the U.S. (honeybees are European imports) and elsewhere might be on the brink of extinction.
  5. The commercial beekeeping industry in the U.S. is fascinating, weird, complicated, remarkable, crazy (choose your adjective).

Colony collapse disorder entered the lexicon in the winter of 2006-2007, when beekeepers began finding hives abandoned by their apian inhabitants but showing no other signs of distress. Here's how David Wallace-Wells described it in New York magazine a couple of years ago:

The bees had just disappeared. In the U.K., they called it Mary Celeste syndrome, after the merchant ship discovered off the Azores in 1872 with not a single passenger aboard. The bees hadn’t even scrawled CROATOAN in honey on the door on their way out of the hive.

The mysterious and apocalyptic nature of these disappearances caught the attention of the news media, environmental groups and some politicians. So did the possibility that pesticides, especially a widely used class of them called neonicotinoids that were introduced in the 1990s, might play a role. And then there was the sheer scale of the losses. Beekeepers were reporting losing 30 percent or 40 percent of their colonies in one winter. How could that possibly continue?

Losses in beekeeping, though, don't mean exactly the same thing as losses in other agricultural endeavors. The number of commercial bee colonies did dip a bit around the time of the initial colony collapse scare, but it has actually grown since then.

The Bees Are Better, But They're Not All Right

How is this possible? Honeybees reproduce quickly and live short lives (five to six weeks for worker bees in the busy spring and summer months). So if you lose a colony, you can start a new one and have it up to full size (40,000 to 50,000 bees at the spring peak) within about two months. The process, as described to me by Gene Brandi, a beekeeper in Los Banos, California, and the current president of the American Beekeeping Federation, involves removing a few frames of bees-to-be, bees and food from an existing colony, waiting for the baby bees to hatch and spend few days wondering where the boss is, then dropping in a queen bee that you've ordered in the mail.

This is time-consuming and expensive for the beekeepers -- one queen bee now costs upwards of $25, and Brandi says he buys 1,400 to 1,600 a year. It has also cut into honey production. The decline in the number of bee colonies from 1970 to 2000 was mainly the typical U.S. agricultural story of ever-increasing efficiency. In 2000, U.S. beekeepers were producing about as much honey as in 1970 with only 60 percent of the colonies. Since 2000, though, honey production has fallen even as the number of colonies has held steady.

The Bees Are Better, But They're Not All Right

U.S. honey consumption has risen over this period, to 1.3 pounds per person in 2016 from an average of 0.9 pounds per year in the 1990s and the 1980s. Imports have filled the gap -- in 2015 the U.S. imported twice as much honey as it produced (imports were down a little in 2016). The three biggest suppliers of honey to the U.S., in case you were wondering, are Vietnam, Argentina and India.

Honey is no longer the main source of income for big commercial beekeepers in the U.S., though. Pollination of crops is. One crop in particular: California's almonds.

The Bees Are Better, But They're Not All Right

California's almond trees bloom for a few weeks in February and March. During that period, Brandi estimates, 85 percent of all available commercial bees in the U.S. are there in the state's Central Valley, flitting from almond blossom to almond blossom. The almond season has long been a big deal for beekeepers, but with almond acreage in California more than doubling since the mid-1990s, it has become much bigger. This has added urgency to the issue of colony losses -- if there are barely enough bees available now to pollinate one of the country's biggest cash crops, what happens if even more of them die off?

It also raises the question, as one contemplates the billions of bees packed into trucks headed for California's almond orchards every February, of whether the nature of the labor that we demand of honeybees might be one of the reasons they're dying in such large numbers. "This is essentially a case of on-the-job stress," Benjamin Wallace-Wells theorized in the New York magazine article that I cited above. 

When I tried this hypothesis out on bee expert Dennis vanEngelsdorp of the University of Maryland, he threw a bit of cold water on it. "The group of beekeepers that loses the fewest colonies year in year out are the big beekeepers," he said. That is, it's exactly the people who haul their bees around the country in trucks who have the most success in keeping their bees alive. This information comes from the Bee Informed Partnership, of which vanEngelsdorp is president, which has been surveying beekeepers since 2008 about their winter losses.

The Bees Are Better, But They're Not All Right

Commercial beekeepers have been able to rein in their losses somewhat over the past decade, although they're still much higher than what they experienced before about 2000 (Brandi, who lost 30 percent of his colonies last winter, remembers 5 percent being the norm). Meanwhile, as backyard beekeepers' losses have gone down a bit over the past couple of years, they're still much higher than they were in 2008. The most obvious explanation is that there are lot more backyard beekeepers now than there were in 2008 -- the news of the bees' troubles has done much to increase interest in the field -- and not all of them know what they are doing.

Still, even the commercial beekeepers continue to lose a quarter of their bees on average every winter. What is killing them? Full-on colony collapse disorder, characterized by the absence of dead bees in or around the hive and the presence of live pupae ("capped brood") and ample honey and bee bread, no longer seems to be a major issue, says vanEngelsdorp. But colonies are still collapsing and bees are still dying for more mundane reasons such as disease and parasites.

The most important parasite is the varroa destructor, an Asian mite that was first detected in the U.S. in 1987. Sometimes varroa mites destroy colonies, sometimes they weaken them and serve as a vector for other diseases that can. And the bees just seem weaker to begin with these days. Which is where the pesticides may come in.

Bees have always had a complicated relationship with pesticides, given that insects are a leading target of pesticides and bees are, well, insects. After World War II, the big new thing was DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), which killed small insects but wasn't toxic to mammals and seemed OK for bees as long as it wasn't sprayed right on them. DDT's problem was that it stuck around in the environment for years, contaminating food chains and threatening bird populations in particular. So after it was banned for agricultural use in the U.S. in 1972, farmers turned to organophosphates such as malathion and diazinon, which are extremely toxic to pretty much everything when sprayed but break down quickly upon exposure to sunlight and air. Lots of bee colonies were killed off by too-close exposure to these chemicals, but there didn't seem to be any chronic issues. Meanwhile, pesticide makers began to develop more targeted, less toxic pesticides such as the nicotinoids, which attack insect nervous systems, and hormone-based insect growth regulators. By the late 1990s, imidacloprid, a nicotinoid produced by Bayer AG, was the most widely used insecticide in the world.

These new pesticides were tested on adult bees and found not to be toxic in the concentrations that farmers were supposed to use them. Since then, though, lots of research has showed that nicotinoids in particular do weaken bees. Most of this has been laboratory work, but a major field study published in June -- sponsored by Bayer and fellow nicotinoid maker Syngenta -- found that moderate neonicotinoid exposure "reduces overwintering success and colony reproduction in both honeybees and wild bees."

Interestingly, the multi-country study found no effect on the bees that were studied in Germany. One theory advanced by a couple of experts interviewed by Science magazine was that the German bees were healthier to start out with, in part because German fields are more likely be surrounded by wildflowers. The wildflowers are really important, it turns out. In a 2008 TED talk that has withstood the test of time quite well, vanEngelsdorp ascribed most of the problems of both honeybees and wild bees to what he called NDD: nature deficit disorder. "Make meadows and not lawns," he advised.

Commercial beekeepers know how important time in actual nature is for their charges. Brandi's bees just spent several months buzzing between the wildflowers (and making lots of honey) in the nearby hills of Monterey County before going back to work pollinating berries and melons. In recent years, many beekeepers have looked to the Dakotas as a summer refuge from NDD -- from May to October, some 40 percent of all commercial honeybee colonies in the U.S. can be found there among grasslands left to grow wild as part of the USDA's Conservation Reserve Program and crops such as alfalfa and sunflowers that provide good forage for bees. Since 2006, though, according to a 2016 study by four U.S. Geological Survey scientists, biofuel subsidies have led farmers in North and South Dakota to shift 1.2 million hectares (3 million acres) to corn and soybeans, crops that beekeepers assiduously avoid, in part because so many chemicals are used on them (virtually all feed-corn seeds in the U.S., for example, are coated with a nicotinoid pesticide before planting).

So here's what is ailing the honeybees: Too many pesticides. Too much corn and soybeans. Too many mites. Too much stress (maybe). Not enough wildflowers.

While a lot less is known about wild bee populations, many appear to be in decline, presumably for related reasons. This puzzled me a little because, in the eastern U.S. at least, nature has been on the rebound, with forests covering far more land area than they did a century ago. "A lot of that stuff is invasive because of the deer population eating the native plants and ignoring the invaders," vanEngelsdorp said when I asked him about this. Native bee species need native plants to survive, so "deer are just a huge problem for us."

Let's add deer to the list of culprits, then. And kudzu. It's getting to be a long list. It's also an indication of what a complex system these bees are part of. Make one change that you don't think has anything to do with them -- develop a new pesticide, enact a biofuels subsidy, invent the motorized lawnmower -- and the bees turn out to feel it.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Justin Fox is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the editorial director of Harvard Business Review and wrote for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market.”

  1. For readers from outside the U.S. (and others who haven't been keeping up on their early colonial history), this is a reference to the Lost Colony of Roanoke in Virginia, which vanished in the late 1500s leaving behind only "a structure of tree trunks, with a single word carved into one post: CROATOAN."

  2. And converted by me into less-beekeepy words that I hope are still accurate.

  3. The single biggest queen supplier for U.S. beekeepers is probably Kona Queen Hawaii but Brandi says the biggest concentration of queen breeders is in California's Sacramento Valley. Queens are bred, according to Southern California breeder Glenn Apiaries by "transferring larva from the worker cell of the breeder's hive to an artificial queen cell. The shape of the cell, along with the queenless condition of the hive receiving the newly grafted cells stimulates the workers to feed them a diet which make them develop into queens."

  4. Almost all of this amazing data is available in spreadsheets at the USDA's Sugar and Sweeteners Yearbook Tables site. The pre-1986 honey colony and production data came from archived editions of the USDA's annual honey report that are available here

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