Activist groups continue to promote scary stories that honeybees are rapidly disappearing, dying off at “mysteriously high rates,” potentially affecting one-third of our food crops and causing global food shortages. Time magazine says readers need to contemplate “a world without bees,” while other “mainstream media” articles have sported similar headlines.
The Pesticide Action Network and NRDC are leading campaigns that claim insecticides, especially neonicotinoids, are at least “one of the key factors,” if not the principle or sole reason for bee die-offs.
Thankfully, the facts tell a different story – two stories, actually. First, most bee populations and most managed hives are doing fine, despite periodic mass mortalities that date back over a thousand years. Second, where significant depopulations have occurred, many suspects have been identified, but none has yet been proven guilty, although researchers are closing in on several of them.
Major bee die-offs have been reported as far back as 950, 992 and 1443 AD in Ireland. 1869 brought the first recorded case of what we now call “colony collapse disorder,” in which hives full of honey are suddenly abandoned by their bees. More cases of CCD or “disappearing disease” have been reported in recent decades, and a study by bee researchers Robyn Underwood and Dennis vanEngelsdorp chronicles more than 25 significant bee die-offs between 1868 and 2003. However, contrary to activist campaigns and various news stories, both wild and managed bee populations are stable or growing worldwide.
Beekeeper-managed honeybees, of course, merit the most attention, since they pollinate many important food crops, including almonds, fruits and vegetables. (Wheat, rice and corn, on the other hand, do not depend at all on animal pollination.) The number of managed honeybee hives has increased some 45% globally since 1961, Marcelo Aizen and Lawrence Harder reported in Current Biology – even though pesticide overuse has decimated China’s bee populations.
Even in Western Europe, bee populations are gradually but steadily increasing. The trends are similar in other regions around the world, and much of the decline in overall European bee populations is due to a massive drop in managed honeybee hives in Eastern Europe, after subsidies ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. In fact, since neonicotinoid pesticides began enjoying widespread use in the 1990s, overall bee declines appear to be leveling off or have even diminished.
Nevertheless, in response to pressure campaigns, the EU banned neonics – an action that could well make matters worse, as farmers will be forced to use older, less effective, more bee-lethal insecticides like pyrethroids. Now environmentalists want a similar ban imposed by the EPA in the United States.
That’s a terrible idea. The fact is, bee populations tend to fluctuate, especially by region, and “it’s normal for a beekeeper to lose part of his hive over the winter months,” notes University of Montana bee scientist Dr. Jerry Bromenshenk. Of course, beekeepers want to minimize such losses, to avoid having to replace too many bees or hives before the next pollination season begins. It’s also true that the United States did experience a 31% loss in managed bee colonies during the 2012-2013 winter season, according to the US Agriculture Department.
Major losses in beehives year after year make it hard for beekeepers to turn a profit, and many have left the industry.