Beginning in 2006, there was much media attention about the collapse of bee colonies and the threat that that could pose to food production, but there has been little news about how the crisis has been averted.
The reversal is certainly newsworthy, and how the beekeepers of the nation used markets to address the problem is even more newsworthy, according to an article in PERCReports, a magazine of free market environmentalism, published in Bozeman by the Property and Environment Research Center.
While at one time, publications like Time were calling the sudden dying-off of honey bees a “bee-pocalypse”, what the public has not heard about is that “Despite the increased honeybee mortality rates, there has been no downward trend in the total number of U.S. honeybee colonies over the past 10 years. Indeed, there are more honeybee colonies in the United States today than when colony collapse disorder began.”
The reason is because of the way beekeepers responded to the crisis.
“Thanks to a robust market for pollination services, they have responded to high mortality rates by rapidly rebuilding their hives. And they have done so with virtually no economic effects to consumers. It’s a remarkable story of adaption and resilience , and the media have almost entirely ignored it,” wrote Shawn Regan in his article “How Capitalism Saved the Bees.”
The beekeepers’ strategies resulted in there being 2.78 million honeybee colonies in the United States in 2016 – 16 percent more than when colony collapse began in 2006. “In fact, there are more honeybee colonies in the United States – 16 percent more — than when colony collapse began in 2006. In fact, there are more colonies in the country today than in nearly 25 years.” Honey production too has remained steady, at 161 million pounds of honey, annually.
Economists concluded that “The disorder has had almost no discernible economic effect. Even as beekeepers repeatedly rebuild their lost hives, the overall costs to beekeepers and consumers have been minimal.” The surprising findings were reported in a paper by Montana State University economist Randal Rucker, North Carolina State University economist Walter Thurman, and Oregon State University entomologist Michael Burgess.
Since a healthy bee population is essential to the production of about a third of the human food supply, the situation was certainly a dire one – not to mention that the pollination industry represents about a $15 billion value to the economy, annually.
Beekeepers readily took advantage of the many aspects of their industry to quickly rebuild their hives and colonies, and to refine the pollination business to keep them profitable and costs to a minimum.
“If a commercial beekeeper loses 100 of his hives, replacing them would come at a cost – the price of each new queen, plus the time required to split the existing hives – but it is unlikely to spell disaster,” said the article.
“Rebuilding lost colonies is a routine part of modern beekeeping.”
The article explains that honeybees are essentially livestock – bred, reared, fed and cared for. Honeybees are not native to North America and the main reason they are raised commercially is to pollinate crops. Montana beekeepers produce honey during the blooming season and then load their hives onto trucks and take them to other parts of the country where crops are in need of pollination, such as almonds in California and fruit in Oregon and Washington, Florida, New York, or Maine, or sunflowers, clover or wildflowers in the mid-west. Not all crops have enough nectar for the bees to produce surplus honey, so in each case beekeepers and crop growers negotiate their own contacts regarding who pays who and how much for pollinating when no surplus honey is produced.
“…it is precisely this modern-livestock lifestyle and the active markets for pollination services that have allowed non-native honeybees to flourish on our continent. They are the reason honeybee populations have remained steady even in the face of disease and other afflictions.”
“A new fertilized queen typically costs about $19 and can be shipped to beekeepers overnight..” or “….beekeepers can produce their own queens by feeding royal jelly to larvae.”
“Replacing lost colonies by splitting hives is surprisingly straightforward and can be accomplished in about 20 minutes.”
The article further explains, “The new hives quickly produce a new brood, which in about six weeks can be strong enough to pollinate crops.”
Beekeepers can also purchase for about $90, “’packaged bees’ to replace an empty hive.”
Colony collapse is not a new phenomenon – it has happened 23 times since the late 1860s.
The reason that the bees suddenly suffer a high mortality rate is still not known. The collapse was a phenomenon experienced in other countries as well.
Most researchers conclude that a variety of factors may be at play, “including infections, pathogens, and malnutrition.”
Suspecting it may be due to “systemic” pesticides, the European Union implemented a partial ban on the pesticides.
The Environmental Protection Agency determined that four of the neonicotinoid pesticides “do not pose significant risks to bee colonies,” and have not acted to ban them, even though environmental groups are pressuring for a ban.
“If a beepocalypse was really upon us, colony numbers and honey production would be declining, the costs associated with rebuilding lost hives would be rising sharply, and the prices of the crops most reliant on honeybees would be rapidly increasing. Yet none of these appear to be the case,” writes Regan.
There are important environmental concerns, impacting wild pollinators such as bumblebees, butterflies and other insects. Their numbers do seem to be in decline, due primarily to habitat loss and agricultural development. And, modern beekeeping practices do create real stresses on beekeepers and honeybees, but concludes Regan, “we shouldn’t exaggerate their light or overlook how successfully they’ve adapted to a changing world.”