There is much argument about what science is. To some people, it appears to be mostly the belief that information should be derived reputed sources. That is, if your belief regarding the age of the Earth comes from your local minister, you are an idiot, but if it comes from a science textbook, you are a scientist.

My own take is that science begins and end with doubt. You should doubt everything, even if it comes from a trusted source. Check the data yourself. Look at the facts.

Let me take an example.

We are routinely told these days that bees are going extinct. The Time told us recently that if scientists can’t pinpoint the cause, the economic and environmental damage could be immense. We are on the verge of a major catastrophe.

Is this what the facts are telling us?

When I go to the supermarket, the prices of honey and almonds are not excessive. Grade A honey sells at an ounce. Maybe it is higher than it used to, but if so, I have not noticed.

The number of managed honey bees in the US has decreased, but is this necessarily caused by threatening diseases? Could it be that people in the US left apiculture to poorer countries? It seems that while there are fewer bees in the US, there are more in Canada: maybe trade and economics can explain population fluctuations. Is there really a honey bee shortage? We do know that the mortality rate of honey bees is increasing, and maybe renting out honey bees is more expensive than it used to be. Maybe keeping honey bees is more expensive. Maybe people are increasing the production of crops that require honey bees. None of these theories are tragic.

When interpreting any figure, one must take into account that it is normal to lose bees during the winter. Apparently, the industry standard is a loss of 15 percent. The recent winters have been harsher than that on many beekeepers, though not all of them. Still, when beekeepers lose bees, they can make more. Alarmist reporters often omit these facts.

Digging further, I find that the number of honey bees has been increasing, not decreasing:

Honey bees are not in decline. According to the United Nation’s FAO database, the global stock of hives has increased by 12.4% during the 21st century and the stock has decreased by only 0.5% in Europe (excluding Eastern Bloc). (…) a honey bee colony can produce about 1,000 new bees per day and thereby replace bees lost through pesticide-induced navigation failure (…) (Cresswell, 2012)

and

Aizen and Harder estimated that global stocks have increased by 45% [since 1960] (…) While it is clear that global stocks of honey bees have increased over the last five decades, not all regions have experienced gains. (…) in North America, both the US and Mexico saw declines over the 46 year period, while Canada saw increases in colony numbers (vanEngelsdorp and Meixner, 2010)

What do researchers have to say about colony numbers and the effect on prices?

Our results suggest that there has been no discernible impacts of CCD on either colony numbers or honey production. Nor has there been an impact on the prices of packaged bees and queens. We find it plausible that CCD has caused a portion of recent increases in almond pollination fees (but has not caused increases in the pollination fees for other crops). We estimate the induced impacts on U.S. consumers to be small. We estimate the impacts on beekeeper costs to be modest, and possibly less than their increased revenue due to CCD-induced increases in pollination fees. (Rucker et al., 2012)

Aizen and Harder seem to support my theory that the population of managed honey bees is driven by economics more than by diseases:

We argue that although disease aggravates production costs, it has less effect on changes in national hive numbers than labor costs, so that geographic variation in the growth of the global honey bee stock reflects the global division of human labor that is a hallmark of economic globalization, rather than persistent and pervasive biological causes. (Aizen and Harder, 2009)

There is a disease affecting honey bees, but we are not at risk of losing the honey bee. There is no threat to our food supply. That is what the facts are telling me.

Some people argue that given that there is a doubt, we should outlaw any kind of pesticide that might be responsible. Why take chances? Because if we act too hastily, we might outlaw otherwise beneficial pesticides. These pesticides could be replaced by alternatives that are less specific and possibly more toxic. They could also reduce productivity which might lead to an increase in food prices (this, in turn, would harm the poorest among us).

28 Comments

  1. There is a huge agri-business where in they put bees on trucks and go to various farms. I think these guys do big business with California almond farms for instance.

    Trucks are not a normal place for hives, so the bees get stressed out. They are more susceptible to illnesses and problems, so the bee truckers spray them with all sorts of chemicals.

    I think this is where the ‘colony collapse’ stories are really coming from. They are trying to get the bees to live in an impossible environment, and eventually the bees die off.

    The press just turns it into ‘all the bees are dying’ for extra ratings, and a some politicos are willing to take advantage of any sort of scare.

    Comment by August — 26/7/2013 @ 11:23

  2. This issue reminds me of Google’s approach to hardware architecture: If any one component fails, the whole machine is taken out of service. For them that leads to a strategy of only creating the minimum set of hardware redundancy, and replacing entire machines when some part on them goes bad.

    That strategy works fine when you have acres of self-contained units. But the analogue here is nearly the entire agriculture sector to a monolithic mainframe. So I submit the net effect is the same: if the managed bee colonies indeed do go extinct, or become somehow unsustainable, that would be akin to a power supply or some other ancillary part failing, which would still bring down the entire machine.

    Comment by Dorian Taylor — 26/7/2013 @ 11:45

  3. They’re not talking about extinction of the species; that is a straw man. CCD is a real and massive threat to food growing.

    Scientists are trying to tease out what is going on. The scariest possibility so far is that the soup of chemicals is the culprit, rather than any single pesticide. See e.g this paper published a couple days ago.: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0070182

    Comment by Daniel Haran — 26/7/2013 @ 11:55

  4. I see a parallel with Polar bears, whose numbers are always reported as declining, when their population has really been increasing steadily for decades. Al Gore famously showed a picture of a pair of them on an ice floe, implying that they were stranded when, of course, they can outswim any other land mammal, especially Al Gore.

    Comment by James P — 26/7/2013 @ 12:39

  5. I am sick of this never ending stream of doom from the environmental lobby. Bees are their current obsession, in between anti fracking and anti GMOs. I wish they would just buzz off.

    Comment by john lord — 26/7/2013 @ 12:50

  6. @Daniel Haran

    CCD is a real and massive threat to food growing.

    Is it?

    We are talking about a phenomenon that has not lead to an overall decrease in honey bee population. We are talking about something that has not, to my knowledge, lead to any significant food price increase.

    Honey is still dirt cheap at my supermarket. Almonds too. You can mail order bees right now for a pitance. The queens are a few bucks each.

    Of course, it is very bad that people lose the hives during the winter. We need to fix this and there are smart people working on the problem. We’ll eventually figure it out. For now, more research is needed.

    In the meantime, you know what we could do to increase the bee population? Let people have bees in the cities (like Montreal). This would go a long way toward increasing the bee population.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 26/7/2013 @ 13:12

  7. @Dorian Taylor

    Sure. But look at the facts. The managed honey bee hives are not unsustainable at this point. Far from it. There is no danger that they will become unsustainable.

    All that is happening is that they are losing no more than a third of their hives during some winters. But it is easy to make new hives.

    We probably have fewer bees in advanced countries because we import honey from poorer countries.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 26/7/2013 @ 13:19

  8. I’m not arguing with you, but I am imagining potential failure modes of conventional agriculture. Black swans happen, after all.

    Comment by Dorian Taylor — 26/7/2013 @ 13:26

  9. @Dorian Taylor

    True. Growing a lot of food is hard. Very hard. Thankfully, we have very sophisticated technology to do it, and very smart people doing it.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 26/7/2013 @ 15:24

  10. What’s interesting is that you chose, out of three papers, two that were not peer-reviewed. Yet you have implicitly dismissed a peer-reviewed paper in the comments.

    Two things thus arise: first, being a professional scientist, I tend to trust peer-reviewed documents over non-peer-reviewed government report. Second, this creates at least the appearance of confirmation bias on your part or even that you have cherry-picked your sources to validate your pre-existing opinion. (to wit: https://yourlogicalfallacyis.com/the-texas-sharpshooter )

    Lastly, honeybees don’t have to go extinct to create a major issue with crop production. We could even have double the number of honeybees and still not be able to produce enough bee-pollinated crops to meet market demand if something arose that prevented us from moving hives from one place to another. Thus, the sensationalist statement that “Honeybees [are|aren't] going extinct” is largely irrelevant to the question of the value of the ecosystem services that honeybees provide.

    Comment by Brent Neal — 27/7/2013 @ 11:46

  11. The benefit of scientific method is that things are proposed and then tested. What you are doing is not scientific. You are taking some numbers that support your idea (hope) and ignoring the evidence to the contrary.

    Sometimes the overall evidence tells us things we don’t want to hear. That’s unfortunate. However, ignoring the possibility of bee populations falling because it doesn’t fit what you would like to be true is not the correct course.

    It appears your scientific research is based upon the price of honey in your local store. This is meaningless. It’s driven less by the cost of producing honey than by retail forces and competition. There are many crops whose costs are increasing but whose retail price stays the same because of the pressures of the market. The idea that only honey would be affected by bee population decline is also a problem. There are far worse repercussions of bee collapse on other crops.

    If modern agriculture is to blame we need to take great care. The US imports bees because of the too-low numbers that remain. Europe is seeing a decline in bees. The UK data suggests a one-third reduction in population between 2012 and 2013. These countries and unions use modern agriculture. Bee populations may be increasing elsewhere but where this is happening, it is likely that modern agriculture is not far away.

    You also only talk about honey bee colonies. I presume that you don’t really believe that honey bees are responsible for all crop fertilsation? Australia, a country that provides many bees for the USA, is seeing wild bee population decline, as are many other areas around the globe. If species decline to a great enough degree, some of the crops that you rely on will also decline.

    Australia may have increasing populations of the commercially useful bees right now. Australis is lucky enough to have avoided (it seems) Varroa destructor thus far. However, with reports of the mite being found on ships off the coast of Australia, this country too could start to see the problems of colony collapse soon.

    Comment by Jim — 27/7/2013 @ 15:34

  12. Daniel Lemire,

    Honey is dirt cheap? Lead me to your supermarket. I’m quite fond of the stuff, and I’ve seen the price double in the last 4 or 5 years. Make allowance for general inflation and that’s still one hell of a jump.

    I’m not about to get into the “bees may become extinct” contoversy since, although I’m a scientist, that’s not my field of expertise. I do know a couple of small producers in Saskatchewan who gave up their sideline because of unexplained mid-summer die-off but, that could have been caused by any number of problems.

    Comment by Zog — 27/7/2013 @ 17:51

  13. I recently read that a lot of what we think is honey is really corn syrup. Apparently it’s quite the scam.

    Comment by jack — 27/7/2013 @ 18:22

  14. The problem is mostly with commercial honey manufacturer’s, small producers don’t see as much CCD which is why cities like vancouver, victoria, paris and new york allow people to keep bees. I’m not sure where you live but the honey you buy, the one you say hasn’t gone up in price might be the watered down stuff that you shouldn’t be buying anyway. the good stuff has gone up in price so has fruit, nuts and vegetables in most of the world.

    Comment by Nathalie — 27/7/2013 @ 19:37

  15. In this flyover state there are hundreds if not thousands of bee hobbiests turning out very delectable honey from small numbers of hives. My better half and I plan to do the same after retirement. Anecdotally, while managing his hives surrounded by traditional corn and soybean fields with all their attendant use of chemicals, a neighbor of ours finds that extreme weather takes the largest toll on his hives.

    Comment by Mazzuchelli — 29/7/2013 @ 12:15

  16. Testimony before the committee, two weeks following the report you cited:

    “If I could just make one point; James (Cresswell) says that there is no evidence for a population level impact. In fact, we have no data on population change with respect to any pesticide that have ever been used in the past. We do not have any population data for bees. So to say there is no evidence for population level decline is not terribly helpful, because we have no data on that.”

    Much much more absolutely fascinating discussion here, including testimony from Cresswell. http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201213/cmselect/cmenvaud/c668-ii/c66801.htm

    It does *not* make me feel sanguine about the state of the pollinator population (of which honey bees are a very small part).

    p.s. prices do not reflect supply or population; they reflect willingness to pay. Prices may remain stable long after supply has become unstable.

    Comment by Stephen Downes — 31/7/2013 @ 19:36

  17. @Zog

    Walmart sells 12oz of honey for a bit over $3. Everything is relative, of course, but I feel that it is absurdly cheap.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 2/8/2013 @ 9:28

  18. @Brent Neal

    Yet you have implicitly dismissed a peer-reviewed paper in the comments.

    Have I? Where?

    I tend to trust peer-reviewed documents over non-peer-reviewed government report.

    That’s not unreasonable, but what peer-reviewed documents oppose the documents I cite? There is no denying that managed honey bee hives are dying at a high rate. There is no denying that this increases production costs. It seems that some man-made chemicals might be responsible, but it is quite clear that more research is needed.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 2/8/2013 @ 9:45

  19. @Jim

    You are taking some numbers that support your idea (hope) and ignoring the evidence to the contrary.

    Am I?

    The UK data suggests a one-third reduction in population between 2012 and 2013.

    Which UK data?

    About a third of the managed honey bee hives died during the winter, but beekeepers create more hives to compensate.

    Farmers experience massive losses all the time. However, they can usually explain these losses (e.g., bad weather or a specific disease). When they experience massive losses and can’t explain them, they are rightfully concerned.

    Note that losing lots of bee hives during the winter is not exactly uncommon or new. What is new is that it keeps happening and we are not exactly sure why. This makes research on this topic urgent.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 2/8/2013 @ 9:53

  20. @Stephen Downes

    Thanks for the link. I urge everyone to read this report.

    Regarding:

    prices do not reflect supply or population; they reflect willingness to pay. Prices may remain stable long after supply has become unstable.

    I would disagree with this. Assuming that demand for honey is a constant and that we have a free market, the price is determined by supply. Note that given a rising population, assuming that the demand is a constant is conservative: demand is probably increasing year by year.

    We might see a rise in the price of “locally produced” honey, as more of it is being produced in poorer countries… However, the overall worldwide production can’t be falling sharply while prices remain stable. Or if it does, you need to explain how it works.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 2/8/2013 @ 10:11

  21. If you think that Wal Mart honey is coming from small producers the joke is on you. It’s most likely coming from China and is mixed with caramel.

    Comment by Nathalie — 2/8/2013 @ 10:11

  22. @Nathalie

    Here is a link to a cheap bottle of honey that is a “product of the USA” and “US grade A”.

    http://www.walmart.com/ip/Great-Value-Clover-Honey-12-oz/20647992

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 2/8/2013 @ 10:16

  23. @Daniel, I don’t doubt that cheap honey exists. I just doubt the quality when you only need a small % of “American honey” to be labelled “product of the USA”.

    Comment by Nathalie — 2/8/2013 @ 10:45

  24. @Daniel

    Re: your #17.

    See #3 and the PLoS ONE paper.

    Comment by Brent Neal — 7/8/2013 @ 5:29

  25. @Brent Neal

    The PLOS ONE says that pesticides might be responsible for the problem with honey bees. Here is the conclusion:

    “Our results highlight a need for research on sub-lethal effects of fungicides and other chemicals that bees placed in an agricultural setting are exposed to.”

    This is also what I am saying: more research is needed.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 7/8/2013 @ 7:44

  26. @Brent Neal

    The paper does claim that there is a decline in the population, but it provides no fact. Instead it cites 3 papers. Two of them document well known hive losses but, as far as I know, say little about population decline. The third paper says:

    While globally honey bee populations have been increasing, the rate of increase is not keeping pace with demand.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 7/8/2013 @ 7:47

  27. Actually, the PLOS paper cites 3 papers to back up that claim.

    Your assumption that you can recall increases in prices of honey is almost certainly wrong. Here’s some data on prices, showing increases:

    http://www.honey.com/honey-industry/honey-industry-statistics/unit-honey-prices-by-month-wholesale/

    Comment by Daniel Haran — 7/8/2013 @ 8:34

  28. @Daniel Haran

    It does cite 3 papers. One these 3 papers, vanEngelsdorp and Meixner (2010) report on a substantial population growth of honey bees wordwide. The other two papers seem to document recent hive losses. But remember that these losses of managed hives are most likely being compensated by beekeepers through increased production.

    Yes, the price of honey has gone upward in recent years, as well as the price of renting out bees from beekeepers. At least in part, these increases in price are driven by strong demand. Still, the price is far from excessive. It has not skyrocketed as it would if bee populations were collapsing.

    Comment by Daniel Lemire — 7/8/2013 @ 9:01

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