Honeybee Losses are Manageable

CLAIM: Honeybee losses are largely an environmental issue that threatens our food supply.

REALITY: Honeybee losses are largely a manageable economic issue and the farming industry is not about to collapse.

A 2013 Huffington Post headline exclaimed: “Honey Bees Are Dying Putting America at Risk of a Food Disaster.” And the Natural Resources Defense Council claims: “Honey bees are disappearing across the country, putting $15 billion worth of fruits, nuts and vegetables at risk.” Another article maintains that 70 percent of our food supply is pollinated by honeybees. These claims are all flat wrong. While they make great headlines, they create a misleading impression that periodic honeybee losses seriously threatens our food supply.

It is true that hive health issues are of concern because farmers rely on honeybees for the production of many fruits, nuts, and vegetables. About one third of food production in the United States benefits from honey bee pollination, according to USDA. California almond growers depend on honey bees exclusively to pollinate crops, requiring 60 percent of the commercial honey bee hives in the country to produce 80 percent of the world’s supply of almonds. Almonds constitute California’s highest-valued agricultural export, according to agricultural economist Hoy Carman of the University of California-Davis.

While poor hive health is unlikely to completely undermine production of these foods, it could make them more expensive. In fact, according Carman, fees for pollinating almonds have increased substantially.

Average fees increased from $35.41 in 1995 to $53.67 [per hive rented] in 2004. The fees then increased to $72.58 in 2005 when CCD first became evident, and shot up $45.31 to $136.98 between 2005 and 2006. Almond pollination fees continued to increase and peaked at an average of $157.03 in 2009.

A survey by the California State Beekeepers’ Association reports that the fees have remained high: $151.26 for 2011, $154.74 for 2012, and $154.03 for 2013. ARS researchers explain that continual losses at the 33 percent level would be costly for beekeepers. But they note further: “Honey bees would not disappear entirely, but the cost of honey bee pollination services would rise, and those increased costs would ultimately be passed on to consumers through higher food costs.”

High annual losses represent an expensive challenge for beekeepers and potentially consumers, but even then, we should not expect a catastrophe. Professor Jamie Ellis of the Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida notes:

Yet, no one believes that honey bees will disappear altogether, even with the concerns over CCD. Instead, the average American may experience increased food prices and decreased food availability if honey bees continue to die at the current rate. The almond industry illustrates this point well.

Not all food depends on honeybees, and essential grains, particularly corn, rice and wheat, constitute the largest part of our diets and these are pollinated by the wind. Researchers from the University of Minnesota and U.S. Geological Survey, writing in Environmental Science and Technology, point out: “Thus the prospect of human starvation in the absence of bees is remote, but crop declines in the most nutritious—and arguably, most interesting—parts of our diet like fruit, vegetables, and alfalfa hay for meat and dairy production, are possible.”

Other researchers have raised concerns that the amount of honey bee-dependent crops has increased globally and exceeds the number of honeybees produced for pollination. They concluded that one of two things must be happening: Either the current number of hives is sufficient for pollination or wild pollinators are providing an important contribution. In the latter case, they suggest that policymakers consider the impact of land use policies to ensure that wild pollinators continue to have sufficient nutrition and nesting habitat. Intensification of “monoculture” may reduce the habitat diversity these wild pollinators require. For example, government subsidies and policies that promote planting of corn for ethanol trigger land use changes that reduce diversity of crops around the nation.


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