Home Restaurant In the Face of Numerous Threats, Bees Are Producing Less Honey

In the Face of Numerous Threats, Bees Are Producing Less Honey

Richard Coy is a fourth-generation beekeeper. For decades, he moved his bees around the country to provide pollination services and make honey in multiple states, returning to a home base in Arkansas, where they produced “soybean honey.”

“We called it [that] because that was basically the only thing growing in the area,” he said. “But the bees were actually collecting honey off all of the wild plants along the edges of the soybean fields.”

Bees need diverse plant life to forage for nectar, and an increasing percentage of land is being developed and planted with monocrops.

Then, in 2017, Coy’s honey production fell off a cliff and never bounced back. In 2019, he packed up the whole operation and moved it to Mississippi to get away from the farming practices he believes are transforming the Midwest’s landscape into an inhospitable environment for honey production. Today, his bees collect nectar on the edges of hillsides instead of commodity crop fields, but the area can only support 3,000 hives, compared to the 10,000 he used to keep in Arkansas. “There’s no other place that is productive enough to expand to,” he said. “Everybody’s battling for the same territory, because there’s not that much left.”

Bees need diverse plant life to forage for nectar, and an increasing percentage of land is being developed and planted with monocrops. As a result, many are starving. And the lack of nutritious forage is just one of several overlapping, interconnected factors that currently threaten the health of America’s commercial honey industry. Climate change, pesticide use, and price competition from cheap and often fraudulent honey imports are also important factors.

In March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that while the number of honey bee colonies in the country declined by just 0.4 percent in 2021 compared to 2020, overall honey production dropped by 126 million pounds, the result of a 14 percent drop in honey yield per colony. In other words, the same number of bees produced significantly less honey. At the same time, bees are dying in greater numbers: Reported rates of colony loss (a measure of annual mortality) between April 2020 and April 2021 were the second-highest loss rates recorded since they were first tracked in 2006. During that one year, beekeepers lost 45.5 percent of their colonies.

The statistics “are telling the same story but from different angles,” said Nathalie Steinhaeuer, who is based out of the department of entomology at the University of Maryland and is the research coordinator for the Bee Informed Partnership (BIP), a national research collaborative that tracks colony loss and other metrics related to bee health. Determining the exact arc of that story is not easy, but it’s crucial to the future of American honey, bees, and the crops that depend on honey bees for pollination.

How Bad Is It for Bees?

This month, researchers published results from the largest global assessment of insect declines to date, which found that the combined impacts of climate change and intensive agricultural land use were associated with a 50 percent reduction in insect abundance. A 2019 scientific review estimated that a whopping 40 percent of insect species around the globe, which are critical to pollination and countless other ecosystem functions, face the threat of extinction within the next few decades, and roughly 46 percent of all bee species are in decline.

Honey bees face the same threats, but because beekeepers manage their colonies and rebuild the ones they’ve lost each year, the overall population has stayed relatively stable in the U.S. in recent years. For some, however, maintaining that stability has become an annual uphill battle.

Bret Adee once ran the country’s largest beekeeping operation. From about 90,000 hives in 2017, he’s down to 72,000, and he’s not sure if the title still applies. “We’ve had such a hard time keeping our bees alive,” he said. “When you have high mortality, there’s this idea that hives will recover. It’s like, ‘Well, yeah, if you don’t go broke first.’”

Bret Adee’s father, Richard Adee, tending bees in the field. (Photo courtesy of Adee Honey Farms)

Steinhaeuer said that BIP has been trying to establish what a baseline rate of “normal” colony loss might be, but without hard data from before 2006, it’s tricky to know exactly how things have changed.

“You always wish you had done the [data collection] 10 years earlier, because when we started, beekeepers were already complaining that the mortality rate was higher than what they remembered,” she said.

While last year’s colony loss rate was up quite a bit, overall the rates have risen at unpredictable intervals. They’ve gone up and down year to year but essentially hovered around the 40 percent average. One thing that has risen year over year is what beekeepers consider “an acceptable level of loss,” says Steinhaeuer. In other words, they have come to expect losing close to half their colonies.

And how much honey each colony produces has been clearly decreasing steadily over time. In the ‘90s and early 2000s, yield per colony was often upwards of 70 pounds. Since 2015, yield rates have remained under 60 pounds, and 2021 was the first time in 35 years it dipped below 50 pounds per hive. And the two issues are intertwined: If beekeepers must split and rebuild hives to replace lost bees, it’s likely they’ll produce less honey as the colonies get back on track.

The Biggest Threats

Experts disagree on which of the many factors impacting honey bee health are most important. Steinhaeuer ranks pests and parasites like the varroa mite first, and poor nutrition second. But poor nutrition is the perfect example of how complicated and intertwined the factors are, since adequate forage for bees is disappearing for several reasons.

When Steinhaeuer asked her team of field specialists who work with commercial beekeepers all over the country why they thought honey production decreased so much in 2021, “their reaction was that it’s no surprise, because 2021 was extremely dry,” she said. Indeed, production yield dropped most significantly—more than 20 percent—in North and South Dakota, where the largest proportion of commercial honey bees are kept in the summer and which have been struck by a historic drought.

Coy said his honey production took a nosedive in 2017 immediately after his farmer neighbors in Arkansas began spraying their crops with dicamba, an herbicide that has wreaked havoc on ecosystems and farm communities due to its propensity to drift.

Honey yield was also down 23 percent in California, where a multiyear drought is expected to get even worse this year. In that state, hotter, drier conditions as a result of climate change have already led to a decline in wildflower species, which bees rely on. (A U.K. study published in April found climate change would likely cause a 40 percent reduction in wildflower abundance and that hotter temperatures would cause wildflowers to produce less nectar in Northern Europe.)

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