CLAIM: Mankind’s tampering with nature threatens the survival of the honeybee and the “balance of nature.”
REALITY: Honeybees in the United States are not natural; they are a non-native farmed species imported to provide honey production and pollination services.
A narrative popular among environmentalists suggests that the problem is mankind’s “tampering with nature,” which can only be solved by reducing our “footprint” on the planet by using fewer agro-technologies and less intensive farming. “Humanity is the perpetrator” of CCD, says Greenpeace activist Rex Weyler, and the “two most prominent causes appear to be pesticides and habitat loss.”
In fact, honeybees are not even a “natural” part of the ecosystem in the United States. They were imported from Europe during the 17th century for honey production and crop pollination, although some colonies now live in the wild. Like cattle, they are an agricultural commodity that is farmed and managed by human hands, in this case beekeepers. And it has been this way for a long time. Bee expert Eva Crane explained in 1975, ‘‘Like the dog, the honeybee had accompanied man on most of his major migrations, and some of the early settlers in each part of the New World took hives of bees with them.” Thus, this debate is not about protection of a wild species we have somehow “disrupted,” but about the management of a domesticated commodity.
Today, Americans continue to employ the European honeybee or honey production and pollination. Much honey is now produced overseas, while U.S. beekeepers farm the bees, which they rent out to farmers during spring and summer for pollination services. Beekeepers around the nation transport some 60 percent of all U.S. hives to pollinate California’s almond farms in spring, and then move them throughout the spring into the summer to pollinate yet more crops around the nation.
It is not surprising that honeybees in the Western Hemisphere generally do not survive as well as they do in Europe, where they have a longer history and greater genetic variability that makes them more resistant to disease. In fact, in their recent survey on honeybee health, European researchers note annual honeybee losses due to natural factors are considered “acceptable” at a rate of 10 percent, while U.S. beekeepers report higher acceptable loss rates ranging from 15 to just more than 21 percent. Even annual losses of nearly 20 percent in the United States are considered acceptable according to a recent survey conducted by the Bee Informed research initiative, a collaborative effort of several universities and research labs led by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and National Institute of Food and Agriculture.
Accordingly, beekeepers must replace a number of colonies every year, which they replenish by splitting hives or purchasing new bees and queens. This involves obvious increased costs and possible downtime while new hives get established. Nevertheless, large annual losses are far from unusual.