Is Climate Change Killing Honeybees?

June 23, 2014

Last week, for National Pollinator Week, the President released a fact sheet announcing new efforts to save honeybees.

As a beekeeper, I can certainly attest to the value of bees for a whole range of reasons. I was speaking last week in Bellingham and one farmer/beekeeper in the audience noted that bees increase yields at his orchard by 40-50 percent. Others, like me, like the honey and simply enjoy keeping bees.

There is a lot of nonsense, however, about honeybees that distracts from real threats.

For example, this claim from the Washington Post:

White House senior adviser Dan Pfeiffer said in an interview this spring with Politico's Mike Allen that Obama had mentioned an article to him that had to do with "the disappearing bees and the fact this is an issue that there are fewer bees, and this has to do with climate change."

Blaming honeybee decline on climate change is pure nonsense. Honeybees are not native to the United States, so they have had to adapt to a variety of different climates. Further, honeybees thrive in climates ranging from California to North Dakota (which is the #1 honey producing state).

The President's fact sheet notes that the number of honeybees has declined during the last 60 years. During that time, land temperatures have increased worldwide by about 1.5 degrees F. For bees that can survive from California to North Dakota, a 1.5 degree temperature change over 60 years is not the cause of a decline. This is especially true since colony collapse has occurred in the last decade, during which time the temperature has not changed.

The President's fact sheet actually does contain some good information that is rarely heard in the media. For example, it notes:

Since 2006, commercial beekeepers in the United States have seen honey bee colony loss rates increase to an average of 30% each winter, compared to historical loss rates of 10 to 15%. In 2013–14, the overwintering loss rate was 23.2%, down from 30.5% the previous year but still greater than historical averages and the self-reported acceptable winter mortality rate.

According to the largest nationwide survey of honeybee mortality, the percentages of hives lost over winter has been gradually declining since 2006. It is still above the previous average, but beekeepers are finding ways to manage the risks. This positive trend is not, however, what you hear from the environmental left or many of the media.

Further, unlike recent articles pointing the finger only at pesticides, the fact sheet notes colony collapse "is thought to be caused by a combination of stressors, including loss of natural forage and inadequate diets, mite infestations and diseases, loss of genetic diversity, and exposure to certain pesticides." That is reflective of what beekeepers and scientists actually believe about increases in winter, honeybee mortality.

The only way to address problems with honeybee mortality is to honestly identify the causes and address them. Beekeepers have an incentive to do that. If hives die over the winter, they have to pay to replace those bees, so they are interested in addressing the real cause of honeybee hive deaths.

Politicians, on the other hand, have an incentive to use honeybees to promote their own personal agenda, whether it matches the real world or not.

Given those incentives, who is more likely to find ways to effectively reduce honeybee mortality: politicians or beekeepers?