Bees are flourishing again. Thanks, capitalism!

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You can relax, everyone: The honeybees are back. As Andrew Van Dorn of the Washington Post reported recently, America suddenly now has a record number of bees after many years of people worrying about their allegedly declining health. How we got from there to here is an interesting story.

For most of the last 20 years, you’ve probably seen occasional headlines about the decline of bee populations in North America. They were reported to be dying off in record numbers. This was potentially putting our agriculture sector and food supply at risk because honeybees play a vital role in pollinating crops.

Researchers were long been split on what was causing the bees to die. Some claimed that infestations of tiny mites were killing the bees and causing what biologists termed “colony collapse disorder,” or CCD. Other bee experts insisted that agricultural pesticides were to blame, and that farmers who were trying to kill off other insect pests were unintentionally destroying their own livelihood and future by damaging their most important pollinators, the honeybees.

My former Competitive Enterprise Institute colleague Angela Logomasini wrote quite a bit about this debate when it was raging, and the recent resurgence of bee populations has vindicated a lot of what she wrote at the time. In 2015, she wrote a blog post titled “How Markets Benefit Honeybees and Mankind.”

“Honeybees will not go extinct any time soon for the same reason we don’t fear the loss of cows or chickens,” she predicted. “All these species have important market value. Honeybees are largely a domesticated species, not completely different from cattle or even the family dog, and their very presence here in the United States has always been driven by the desire for honey or pollination services. In fact, when the colonists appeared in America, there were no honeybees. They had to be imported from Europe so that the settlers could have an affordable supply of honey.”

And that is basically the same reason reported by the Washington Post for why bee populations have improved. The story mentions that a change in property tax rates in Texas helped out beekeepers in the Lone Star State. But the Post’s Andrew Van Dorn emphasizes that the market for commercial pollination – from farms that grow agricultural commodities – is the real reason why we have plenty of bees.

That is the opposite of the criticism that we heard for years, which was that a greedy capitalist desire to maximize farm yields led large farm operators to overuse pesticides, which were supposedly pushing bees to the brink of extinction.

As my old colleague Angela pointed out, one of the best ways to protect bees is to use pesticides – specifically, to kill the mites that infest hives. In fact, the class of pesticides most frequently blamed for declining bee health, neonicotinoids, generally only affect insects that bite, chew, or eat the plants in question, not pollinating insects like bees that only interact with the pollen and nectar. But for people who reflexively opposed the use of commercial-scale pesticides, this was just another excuse to ban chemicals they didn’t like.

Colony collapse disorder was first described as a threat back in the mid-2000s, and for years observers argued about how significant it was. This week’s Post story about bee populations suddenly being healthy again was great news, but not exactly new news. It turns out the Post itself featured oddly similar coverage almost nine years ago. On July 23, 2015, the Post ran a story with the headline “Call off the bee-pocalypse: U.S. honeybee colonies hit a 20-year high,” including this opening summary of the issue: “You’ve heard the news about honeybees. ‘Beepocalypse,’ they’ve called it. Beemageddon. America’s honeybees are dying, putting honey production and $15 billion worth of pollinated food crops in jeopardy.”

But that story nonetheless concluded that the threat – even back in 2015 – was pretty much over. And what was the thing that had apparently solved the bee crisis nine years ago? You guessed it – market demand for commercial pollination services. The 2015 story concludes with this paragraph, where the Post’s Christopher Ingraham cites two economists who had recently studied the problem:

“Tucker and Thurman, the economists, call this a victory for the free market: ‘Not only was there not a failure of bee-related markets,’ they conclude in their paper, ‘but they adapted quickly and effectively to the changes induced by the appearance of Colony Collapse Disorder.’”

So, this narrative about how all of the bees were dying out – which was weaponized at the time by environmental activist organizations like Greenpeace to lobby for banning ever more agricultural pesticides – turns out not to have really been a crisis at all. Or at least, a small enough crisis that market demand solved it twice in the space of a decade.

It’s certainly true that some hives in the mid-to-late 2000s were dying off, raising the cost of pollination services for farms. In response, though, people in the agriculture industry invested more time and money into the world of beekeeping, and now we have more bees than ever. Amazingly, we did it all without a billion-dollar industrial policy spending spree by Congress.

We also covered this story in Episode 67 of the Free the Economy podcast (bee segment start approximately 1:11 in).