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Honeybee Population in Decline—Or Not?

If you read the news about honeybee survival, it’s all very confusing. Some sources sound the alarm by pointing out that the number of honeybee hives has dropped significantly in recent decades. Others say just the opposite: There are more hives today than ever before.

Which is it? Actually, both.  Some regions of the world have fewer hives, while globally there are more commercial hives now than there were in 1960. The key here is to understand which dataset is more important to the debate about sustaining these helpful creatures.

The Hoover Institution’s Dr. Henry Miller notes in a Wall Street Journal op-ed: “The reality is that honeybee populations are not declining. According to U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization statistics, the world's honeybee population rose to 80 million colonies in 2011 from 50 million in 1960.” Meanwhile Jennifer Sass of the Natural Resources Defense Council responds in a letter to the editor: “The number of managed honeybee colonies in the U.S. has dropped from four million hives in 1970 to 2.5 million today, according to White House statistics.”

Surprisingly, both of these claims are correct. Miller points to the “global” commercial honeybee-hive count, which has grown considerably. Sass points to domestic colony numbers only, which have in fact declined.

Miller’s numbers are more relevant because if honeybee survival is really at stake, we would see declines on a global scale. Miller also points out that U.S. and European hive numbers are relatively stable, and Canadian numbers increased. Miller is certainly correct to point out that honeybees are not about to disappear.

In a June 2009 Current Biology article, Argentine biologist Marcelo A. Aizen and the University of Calgary’s Lawrence D. Harder provide a helpful analysis of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) data that Miller cites. They explain that economic rather than ecological forces have determined where and how many commercial hives are kept. 

Honeybees are not only farmed for pollination services, but to produce honey, and far more bees are used to make honey than to pollinate crops. Since more honey is now made overseas than it was in the past, more hives are kept overseas, and fewer in the United States and Europe. And the global number of commercial hives and honey they produce has grown to meet the demands of an expanding world population.   

Such shifts offer no evidence of a honeybee hive “crisis.” They simply represent the market forces of supply and demand. Aizen and Harder explain:

The FAO data also clarify that national or even regional declines in the health and/or size of the managed honey-bee population cannot substantiate claims of a global pollinator decline or an attendant pollination crisis. … Until relevant data become available and clear patterns emerge, any claim of a global pollinator decline and associated pollination crisis must be considered as a matter of debate, rather than as fact. This conclusion does not detract from real biological problems in the honey-bee populations of some countries however, it emphasizes that solutions to those problems must be motivated locally, rather than globally, and must acknowledge the dominant influence of economics in the pollination represented by every spoonful of honey.

In the final analysis, we see that whether there were more commercial bee colonies in 1960 than there are today in one nation or region is beside the point. As a farmed commodity, the number of colonies will ebb and flow with market forces.

Certainly, challenges exist regionally, and in some years, commercial beekeepers in certain areas experienced higher than acceptable losses, which requires them to bear costs of hive replacements. For a good analysis of how market forces facilitate hive replacement, see Randal Rucker and Walter Thurman’s study on the topic for PERC.

But we should be clear about the nature and scope of regional problems, which certainly are important and deserve attention.

Solutions will follow only if we take an objective look at the issues, so we can address them appropriately rather than embrace a crisis mentality. As I highlight in a recent post for The Hill, a big part of the solution lies at the very local level: with the beekeepers, farmers, and communities that surround them.