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Are Honey Bees Dying – Are We Losing Our Food Supply?

I have seen hundreds of reports about the honeybees dying. If we don’t do something soon we will loose 75% of our food supply. Chemicals are killing them by the millions. But are they really dying? Do we have a catastrophe on our hands or do we have a bunch of fear mongering authors who do not understand science?

From a myth busting point of view this is an interesting story. The truth depends very much on how you ask the question.

Are honey bees dying?

Are honey bees dying?

Are Bees Dying?

Clearly bees die all the time so the answer is yes, but that is not what is being asked here. Let’s look at two questions which seem to be similar at first glance, but they are very different.

Are bees dying faster than normal?

Do we have less bees now than in the past?

Before we go any further we need to define the term bees. In this article, bees, always refers to managed honeybees ie those kept in hives. The importance of this distinction was discussed in my last post Honey Bees vs Native Bees.

Honeybees die all the time, both in winter and in summer and beekeepers expect some losses. The important question becomes, are the losses this year lower or higher than the expected historical value. In recent years the number of colonies that have collapsed in North America are higher than historical averages. People refer to this as colony collapse disorder (CCD).

If you measure bee death by looking at current CCD numbers, bees are dying faster than normal.

The second question looks at the problem differently. Since we know bees die, it becomes important to know if we have less bees this year than last year. Keep in mind that honey bees are a managed animal, and colonies can be expanded. When you look at the data, it is quite clear that there is no decrease in the number of honey bees. In fact the numbers are going up in most countries.

If you are an author and want to use a sensational headline, which answer do you use? The first one of course. It allows you say ‘bees are dying in record numbers’. Once the reader understands this, it is a small leap for them to accept the idea that we have a catastrophe on our hands and that our food sources are in jeopardy. But since we have more bees now than in the past, none of these sensationalized conclusions are true.

History of CCD

Honey bees have been around a long time and we have records going back over a thousand years. These records show that we experienced CCD events in 992, 1443, 1853, and 1903.  We also had a CCD event in 2006 to 2008.

Some bee experts have expressed the idea that the recent events are not that unusual, historically speaking.

CCD and Neonicotinoides

Neonics, short for neonicotinoides, have gotten a lot of press for causing bee deaths. A lot of research as been done and it is now accepted by most authorities that neonics play a fairly minor role in CCD, if any at all (ref 3). Consider these facts.

There have been some isolated cases of improper use of the pesticides and improper application of the coated seeds resulting in nearby bee colonies dying. But the vast majority of deaths can’t be traced back to such pesticide use.

Australia uses neonics and has not experienced a CCD event. The pesticide is clearly not causing deaths there. They also don’t have the varroa mite.

Western Canada uses neonics extensively but have normal bee deaths. Ontario also uses the pesticide and has higher rates of death. Interestingly, the management of the hives is quite different in the two locations, as I will discuss below.

Bee Deaths and the Verroa Mite

Experts agree that the single biggest cause of CCD is the verroa mite. Other factors may also be contributing to the problem but the mite is a big part of the issue.

“At the University of Guelph Honey Bee Research Centre, Professor Ernesto Guzman says that 85 per cent of overwinter bee deaths are attributable to Varroa ” (ref 5).

Poor Hive Management

A lot bees are kept by hobbyists and a recent study shows that these hobbyists have higher CCD events than professional bee keepers. This is explored in some detail in Infestations Rarer Among Professional Beekeepers (ref 1). Hobbyists simply don’t manage hives as well, and have higher incidences of verroa mites. This leads to higher colony deaths.

Above I mentioned the difference between Western Canada and Ontario. Western Canada consists of very large farms – thousands of acres each. Honey bees are used to pollinate the canola fields and this requires a lot of bees which are supplied by large profession beekeepers. They have very strict management procedures and a strong organization making sure procedures are followed. They have lower bee deaths.

Ontario has many smaller, hobbyist beekeepers. They do not have strong management procedures and they also have higher CCD events.

The connection between management practices and bee deaths seems quite clear. (ref 5)

The story does not end there. As the bees die, the mites leave the colony and find another colony to infect and they bring along a variety of viruses. The mites are spreading viruses to the bees and this could become a bigger problem than the mites themselves (ref 2).

Treatment-free Beekeeping

Iida Ruishalme, in her blog called Thoughtscapism, (ref 1) discusses a new way of beekeeping that has a lot of followers. It’s called treatment-free beekeeping, or TF for short. This movement has thousands of followers and consists mostly of hobbyist beekeepers. Their Facebook group has 18,000 members and their ethos is:

We are completely unconcerned about treatments except to mention, in passing, the damage they cause. We keep bees as if diseases don’t exist and we like to talk about doing that. Treating is not discussed here.

TF believes in the natural forces – let nature take its course. If a hive gets mites, nature knows best and will resolve the problem. In most cases it resolves the problem by the death of a colony or two – no big deal, that is nature.

This movement reminds me very much of the extreme organic movement, or the permaculture movement. Ignore science completely, and follow a ritual, even if it does not make sense or does not work.

Are There Problems With Honey Bees?

Yes. More colonies die than is normal. They definitely have mites and virus problems. There is a definite decrease in habitats – they need more flowers. There is much more we can do to improve their health. Right now the verroa mite is our biggest challenge.

Current Status of Honey Bees

The chart below shows the number of beehives in the US and Canada since 1995. There was clearly a time in 2006 when the number of hives decreased, but since then there has been a steady increase of hives “and now stands at 20-year highs in North America and worldwide (2015). Scientists now believe it (CCD events in 2006) was a short-lived phenomenon that has occurred numerous times over the past few centuries”( ref 3).

bees dying North AmericaHoney bee numbers are on the rise. There is no catastrophe with regard to honey bees, except in the minds of certain environmental groups that don’t let data stand in the way of their beliefs.

If we can solve the verroa mite problem, and get rid of treatment-free beekeeping our CCD problem will go away as well.

References:

  1. Treatment-free Beekeepers Give Verroa Mite Free Rein; https://thoughtscapism.com/2017/04/10/treatment-free-beekeepers-give-varroa-mite-free-rein/
  2. Disease incidence in US Honey Bees; https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs13592-016-0431-0
  3. USDA Study Concludes Neonics Not Driving Bee Deaths; https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2015/03/23/usda-study-concludes-neonics-not-driving-bee-deaths-as-white-house-set-to-announce-bee-revival-plan/
  4. The Extinction of the Honey Bee? ; http://scientificbeekeeping.com/the-extinction-of-the-honey-bee/
  5. No bee Armageddon: Neonics and Canada’s bees; http://www.agwest.sk.ca/blog/posts/No-bee-Armageddon-Neonics-and-Canadas-bees.html
  6. Photo source: Oakschmied Honey

 

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Robert Pavlis
Editor of GardenMyths.com
I live in southern Ontario, Canada, zone 5 and have been gardening a long time. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

I hope you find Garden Myths an educational site that helps you understand your garden better.

15 Responses to 'Are Honey Bees Dying – Are We Losing Our Food Supply?'

  1. John says:

    In the SouthEastern US there are NO honeybees, relatively speaking, or any other pollinators. This is the worst year in about 6-8 yrs of decline. In fact it has been months since I saw a honeybee, bumble bee, and there are very few other winged pollinators. They are usually all over the ripe figs and hummingbird feeders, and they do not show up for a tray of sugar water.

    • Are you claiming that all of the honeybee hives in the SouthEastern US died last winter, and none have been replaced? Or are you claiming the SouthEastern US has never had honeybees? Do you have data to support your claims?

  2. Ashley says:

    http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/cps-spc/pubs/pest/_fact-fiche/neonicotinoid/neonicotinoid-eng.php

    This source is more than relevant for anyone who cares to read

    • http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2011/01/bumblebee-decline-confirmed-across-us

      Bumble Bees are the biggest native species to recognize decline. There are smaller pollinators which we cannot see nor is there funding to measure decline.

      In our nation natural transition is stopped by agriculture in general. Providing more flowers more flowering shrubs and pioneer to intermediate tolerant trees could be included in land management plans.

      I really don’t understand your comment. Perhaps you disagree with the perception that diversity is decreasing? Maybe evolution is constantly producing mutants which replace mutants. We are still discovering species in ISOLATED areas of the world.

      Planting more forage will increase benefit all pollinator speceis.

  3. Stanley Zubrowski says:

    A few years ago we had an infestation of bertha army worms on canola crops. Spraying of these pests was done with airplanes. I personally winessed mass die-off of honey bees along the roadside that was close to bee hives. Aerial spraying not only kills bees – many birds, butterflies, and other beneficial insects are destroyed – all so farmers can reap profits!

    • That is unfair.

      1) Farmers only grow things people will buy, and if they don’t make a profit they go out of business.

      2) Where do you work? Think about all the things your company does that harms the environment – all in the name of making a profit and paying your salary.

  4. Not entirely true you need to pull back more of the deception. Working as a commercial bee keeper Amitraz is the #1 mite control used illegally and in dangerous concentrations and during times of honey flow and wax production. In these systems the number of colonies is in constant turnover queens rarely live a year. And these bee keepers have no idea of real #’s of survival they only know total survival. The top three pesticides found in wax and honey are used by bee keepers. Amitraz breaks don’t to harmful metabolites which does contribute to colony loss. There are millions of pounds of honey and mass produced bee equipment sold to hobbyists and consumers which are loaded with these metabolites. If Varroa does become resistant to Amitraz then we will lose 2/3 of our pollinated fruits. Small bee keepers are the only assurance we have to help our pollinators. We also need more bee forage less grass more medicinal and flowers. 90% of are medicinal plants would be gone if we lose our pollinators. TF is really clouding the issue and is a easy target for laughing commercial bee keepers to point the fingers. Honey bees, Apis mellifera, will go extinct in areas of long hard winters. Bees need to be cared for. It is a centuries old practice. We need beekeepers, we need to demand pesticide free honey, we need to plant bee forage. Lets not get in a tit for tat argument. Skepticism is dangerous when it comes to our food supply. Bee keepers are not regulated the FDA, DEC, EPA are apathetic to the possible contaminants in honey and packers will pack without checking.

    • Agree with much of what you say.

      “If Varroa does become resistant to Amitraz then we will lose 2/3 of our pollinated fruits.” – maybe, if we don’t find an alternative.

      “Small bee keepers are the only assurance we have to help our pollinators.” – how are defining pollinators? I don’t see how this group is helping native bee pollinators or other kinds of pollinators.

      • I have a 20 acre organic farm as well as my side liner bee business. We have planted and created a small sanctuary for all pollinators. Most hobbyists have more of a idealistic view about the positive effect they have on the environment. I have seen hobbyists buy a nuc and two weeks later it swarms. Swarms contribute to natural populations. These little isolated habitats may not contribute to honeybee health but generally I think they provide sanctuary for other pollinators. I understand the risk of foul brood. I guess I could concede the point.

        I’m not a dooms day scenario guy. I agree we will find alternatives. I know China employs people to pollinate apples and pears.

        The industrial bee industry has not truly learned the hard knocks like that of the dust bowl where farming practices contributed to the demise of millions of acres of land. The large commercial operations need bees for the pollination check they will do anything to keep them alive through the pollination. I think if bees were as visible as cows and CAFO’s. We might view these commercial operations differently.

  5. Carolyn Langdon says:

    Robert,

    Five years ago I considered taking up bee keeping on a very small scale. We live in a forested region south of Algonquin Park. They provide honey and I like honey. We’re surrounded by basswood trees, an early source of nectar for bees and I grow some plants that succeed in flowering. I signed up for a day long intensive workshop led by a staff member from the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association based out of Milton Ontario.

    I was keen but as the day wore on and the instructor was giving us the protocols for mite and virus control my enthusiasm started to wan. After lunch we were still talking about disease control. She told us that all hives will get parasitic mites. It’s not a matter of if, but when. Of the four hives that we inspected, the owner had lost three queens over the winter. Her drones were likely going to die before new queens could be shipped in from New Zealand. Winter kill is a big issue the farther north you go and beekeepers will provide sugar water in late winter to replace the depleted honey reserves to pull their bees through.

    Near the end of the day I asked her about the transmission of disease from commercial colonies to wild populations. She responded by replying that ‘there are no wild bees, that we’ve eliminated them.’ Coming from the agricultural waste land of southern Ontario she might be excused from thinking that there are no native bees and few songbirds for that matter. In our region, Haliburton County, we are very aware of the importance of our native pollinators. She told us that disease will travel from commercial to wild populations. I googled this question and the hits seem to reinforce what the expert told us. Please see below.

    I will tell you that the $50 cost of the workshop was the best money I’d spent in a long time. I saved myself hundreds of dollars and much time and aggravation that would have gone in to setting up some “managed” bee hives. As an alternative I’m investing in our wild species by setting out bee hotels and growing native flowering plants.

    Thanks for your posts on bees.

    Commercial bees threaten wild bees, say researchers – BBC …
    http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-30831257
    Jan 19, 2015 – Image caption Wild honey bees can no longer be found in England and Wales … Evidence suggests bees bred in captivity can carry diseases that … or in commercial hives, are known to suffer from parasite infections and …
    Wild Bees Catch Honeybee Disease | The Scientist …
    http://www.the-scientist.com › The Scientist › News & Opinion › Daily News
    Feb 19, 2014 – Study suggests a honeybee disease might be spilling over into wild bee… (DMV), a disease that affects commercial honeybees, can also infect wild … “Honeybees share the same habitat with many other pollinating insects and disease …Wild bumblebees have suffered declines in their populations, and …
    Managed bees spread and intensify diseases in wild bees
    phys.org › Biology › Plants & Animals
    Nov 5, 2015 – “Even in cases when the managed bees do not have a disease, they still … to limit the effects of managed bee use in areas suffering wild bee declines. … carried by commercial bees can jump to wild pollinator populations with …
    Disease associations between honeybees and bumblebees …
    http://www.nature.com/articles/nature12977
    by MA Fürst – ‎2014 – ‎Cited by 113 – ‎Related articles
    Feb 20, 2014 – Wild pollinators such as bumblebees (Bombus spp.) … pollinators likehoneybees or commercial colonies of bumblebees. … bumblebees and honeybees are infected by the same DWV strains, Apis is the … Honeybees (Apis mellifera), the prevailing managed insect crop pollinator, suffer from a range of …
    Honeybees may be infecting bumblebees with deadly …
    http://www.theguardian.com › Environment › Bees
    Feb 20, 2014 – The wild bees probably pick up infections from flowers that have been … does not definitively prove the diseases are passed from honeybees to …
    Colony collapse disorder – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colony_collapse_disorder
    Honey bees at a hive entrance: One is about to land and the other is fanning. Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is the phenomenon that occurs when the majority …. tracheal and Varroa mites, and commercial beekeepers’ retiring and going out of …. almonds lost, on average, the same number of colonies as those that did not.
    Popular Science – Nov 1997 – Page 81 – Google Books Result
    https://books.google.ca/books?id=hwAAAAAAMBAJ
    Vol. 251, No. 5 – ‎Magazine
    In the process, they destroyed the nesting sites of the bees best suited to … farm, although colonies of escaped honeybees can also be found in the wild. … These mites spread through crowded commercial bee colonies in the same way diseases … backyard gardeners who depend on wild honeybees suffered similar fates.
    Do managed bees drive parasite spread and emergence in …
    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2213224415300158
    by P Graystock – ‎2015 – ‎Related articles
    Oct 28, 2015 – Evidence of parasite spread to wild bees around the world. … The key factors that may drive disease emergence within and between populations of managed and wild bees. … When flowering crops are used in such fields, they can suffer from … Although the most utilised species in commercial colonies is B. I attended a 6 hr. seminar given by a staff from the Ontario Bee Keeping Association.

  6. Art Thompson says:

    Thanks for the update and thoughtfully piecing together the fine print.

    I use Imidacloprid (a neonicotinoid) as my go-to insecticide. I can see how it’s use on a large crop field while bees are pollinating could be dangerous. I never use it on my trees until after they are done flowering. On garden vegetables I use it only when needed, such as aphid infestations.
    It is a systemic, so I use it that way on eggplants, that are otherwise certain to be destroyed as fast as they can grow.

  7. Mike Ricci says:

    Spot on Robert!

  8. Dan OConnell says:

    Great summary. I’m reposted on island county, wa WSU MG website

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