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Let’s Talk About This Whole “Save the Bees” Thing

Updated: Apr 22, 2023

Fact: The camera does not add ten pounds. Christmas cookies do.

Go ahead, Google it: “Save the Bees.” In .64 seconds, you’ll find 80,200,000 hits at your fingertips. Clear, incontrovertible evidence of a global calamity: OUR HONEY BEES NEED SAVING! (Of course, if you Google “Aliens,” you’ll discover over a billion hits, so perhaps the evidence is not as iron-clad as I originally supposed.) I digress.

Even the most willfully oblivious observer has heard sinister tales of the impending collapse of civilization if we kill off our bees.[1] News stories talk about honey bees in crisis, colony collapse, and all the badness that will befall us if we wipe out our hairy-eyeballed little friends.[2] How soon do we need to panic?

The answer is complicated. News reports often smooth over key nuances and conflate unrelated stories about unrelated insects. (Disclaimer: I am not a professional scientist, but I can attempt to provide a bit of context.) Here’s some of what we know: Nowadays, honey bees face a dark constellation of stressors that did not bedevil the bees of forty years ago. Chief among them—and honey bees’ Public Enemy #1—is the varroa destructor, an evil little mite whose introduction to North America in the late 1980s changed the complexion of beekeeping forever. If you have bees, you have mites. Without exception. Left untreated, they will severely weaken or outright kill a colony within a year and a half. Mite control is essential, but not foolproof. No silver bullet exists to eradicate the little terrorists, and some of our most potent treatments are starting to lose their efficacy as varroa develop resistance to the chemicals. New beekeepers sometimes make the misguided decision never to introduce mite treatments into their hives. A year later, crestfallen from early failures, they either buy new bees or give up and sell their expensive equipment at a loss. Mites kill bees. It’s an expensive lesson.

The biggest problem with varroa mites is that they can vector around twenty viruses into a colony. While bees are remarkably resilient when facing a single stressor, their odds of survival decrease significantly when they have to fight multiple enemies on multiple fronts. Along with these viruses, honey bees endure challenges associated with misapplied pesticides, loss of habitat, the monocultures of commercial agriculture, bad beekeepers, poor queen quality, and the stresses of climate change. Collectively, these factors stack the deck against the creatures responsible for pollinating one out of every three bites of our food.

The Bee Informed Partnership, which has been collecting data on colony losses for over fifteen years, recently reported annual losses over 45% between April 1, 2020 and April 1, 2021.[3] To be sure, that is a sobering statistic. What often gets lost in the shuffle is a very important and paradoxical piece of information: the high percentage of loss doesn’t necessarily mean that the number of managed colonies is decreasing. Beekeepers’ colony losses can often be recouped in the springtime by natural means—just by understanding bee biology and using it to one’s advantage. (Imagine reading news stories of someone who is running up $10,000/month in credit card bills. That sounds pretty bad--until you learn that their monthly income is $100,000. Context is everything.)

Shortly after Christmas (in this part of the world), the queens start ramping up brood production in anticipation of swarm season later in the spring. To prevent the old queens from taking half the bees and flying off to new homes, beekeepers can divide the overcrowded hives into smaller units called nucleus colonies (“nucs”) and turn a single colony into two or three. So, let’s do some quick bee math: Let’s say one starts with 100 hives and then loses 45% over the course of a year—leaving 55. In early spring, he or she can split those 55 and turn them into 150 or 160. Does that count as a 45% loss or a 50 to 60% gain from the original 100? Large losses are not ideal, but they are not insurmountable. With careful management and a little luck, a beekeeper with ten hives (and very deep pockets) could grow those ten into a thousand colonies within ten years. Take annual loss numbers with a grain of salt.

Make no mistake: honey bees in North America have been dying at a greater rate in recent years, but that does not necessarily mean that the population is being eradicated. While the number of colonies in North America has decreased over the past sixty years, the number of managed colonies worldwide has nearly doubled since the 1960s.[4] As I said, it’s complicated. The situation gets even more slippery when one takes into account the plight of native (non-honey-bee) bees that struggle to outcompete our honey bees for their daily bee bread. Some interesting research suggests that honey bees may actually be partially to blame for the woes of the natives.[5] Do bees need saving? Maybe. But not the ones you think.

I was recently lucky enough to be interviewed by a local TV reporter. It was a great, fun experience. We talked for nearly an hour and a half about the lives and times of the honey bee. We did a few hive inspections, spotted some queens, tasted honey right out of the comb, and parted ways on good company. The final, edited product distilled a long chat to about two minutes of air time, during most of which I stammered through impromptu remarks that lacked the finesse required of Prime Time. In the final analysis, the message was clear: (paraphrasing…) “The world thinks there’s a bee problem. One local beekeeper doesn’t believe it.” So, here I am—hoping to provide a slightly more nuanced context for my skepticism…but still not ready for Prime Time. As I said, it’s complicated.

For more information on pollinator health, check out the Honey Bee Health Coalition.

[1]. In case you’re wondering, Einstein probably didn’t say the thing about mankind going extinct in four years if the bees go away. http

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