Nationwide Survey Shows Dramatic Improvement in Honeybee Health

May 16, 2014

During the last week, there has been a great deal of attention to a study claiming pesticides are responsible for an increase in honeybee hive death. Known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), beekeepers and scientists have been working to find out what is to blame for the trend.

What has been ignored, however, is recent good news about CCD. A recent study by Bee Informed, a nationwide survey of beekeepers, the percentage of hives that died over winter fell from 30.5 percent in 2012-13 to 23.2 percent last winter, a 25 percent reduction in hive mortality.

The survey is extremely robust, covering an estimated 20 percent of all hives in the country.

This undermines the claim that pesticides are to blame for CCD. Unless pesticide use dramatically declined last year, which I am certain it didn't, it is hard to cite pesticide use as the cause of the reduction in the first place. The most likely explanation for the improvement is that beekeepers are managing other risks, like varroa mites, that contribute to CCD. Such a significant decline in winter mortality indicates beekeepers are effectively changing their management techniques in response to losing hives.

It also shows how hyperbole about honeybees is harming thoughtful discussion about the causes of CCD. The Discover Magazine blog about the pesticide study concludes with this ominous paragraph:

CCD threatens not only bees but entire economies and the world food supply. Honeybees pollinate about a third of crops worldwide and, according to some estimates, as much as 80 percent of U.S. crops.

This is pure hyperbole. Total honeybee populations in the United States are actually increasing. A reduction in hive mortality will help this trend. Beekeepers are responding to CCD by increasing breeding. For example, one of my two hives died over the winter, but I will have four hives this year because I am buying newly bred bees and splitting one of my hives into two. Others are doing the same, which is actually increasing the number of pollinators.

Additionally, noting that farmers rely on honeybees is evidence that farmers are careful about using pesticides. Many who blame pesticides for CCD claim farmers are glibly using pesticides that harm the very honeybees they rely on for pollination. The supposed villains of the pesticide narrative, carless farmers, are the ones with the most to lose.

There will, undoubtedly, be calls for politicians to do "something" about CCD. This national study, however, shows that beekeepers are better at finding effective techniques to keep their hives alive and their honeybees pollinating our crops and flowers. Not to mention making honey.