CLAIM: Honeybee populations are declining and creating a crisis situation for farmers who need their pollination services.
REALITY: Globally, the number of hives have increased although their locations have shifted.
The news about honeybee populations can be very confusing. Some point out that there are more honeybee hives today than there were several decades ago, while others claim the opposite. The Hoover institution’s Dr. Henry Miller points out that U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) data show that “honeybee populations are not declining.” In fact, FAO data show that the number of bee hives kept globally has grown from nearly 50 million in 1961 to more than 80 million in 2013. 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.”
Both of these claims may be technically correct, but Miller’s data is more relevant, while Sass’s data shows only part of the picture. 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 for economic, not environmental, reasons. Miller points out that U.S. and European hive numbers are relatively stable, and the Canadian numbers have actually increased. Miller is certainly correct to point out that honeybees are not about to disappear from the face of the Earth.
The FAO data Miller cites were analyzed by biologists Marcelo A. Aizen of Universidad Nacional del Comahue in Argentina and Lawrence D. Harder of the University of Calgary in a 2009 Current Biology journal article. They explain that economic rather than ecological forces have determined where and how many hives are commercially kept.
Globally, far more honeybees are used or honey production than pollination services, and the amount of honey produced has increased with world population growth. U.S. and European commercial hives have decreased because honey production simply moved to other nations, where the number of hives have grown substantially. 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 or less commercial bee colonies in 1960 than there are today in one nation or region is not clearly a matter for concern. As a farmed commodity, the number of colonies and their locations will ebb and flow with the market. Annual losses represent an important concern and economic challenge for beekeepers in the regions where they occur, but they should not be confused with the global supply of honeybees.