Honey bees are not going extinct

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)


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).

Daniel Lemire, "Honey bees are not going extinct," in Daniel Lemire's blog, July 26, 2013.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

32 thoughts on “Honey bees are not going extinct”

  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.

  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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. @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.

  6. @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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

    1. Your comments on the economics is simply incorrect and not supported by any facts. You claim that there are crops whose cost to produce is increasing but that the retail price to the consumer has not changed due to market pressure. There is no ‘market pressure’ holding the price of a product down if the cost to produce is going up for everyone. Your reasoning would further suggest that a product would lose money due to ‘market pressure’ which is non sense.

      Margins on food stuffs are very slime. Any increase in production cost will have a direct impact on retail cost. For example, a 10% decrease in wheat production will have a direct impact in the price of bread. The market pressure you refer to would impact the ability of some producers to remain in the market and/or so products to stay on the shelves. The decrease in number of products and or number of producers would further reduce the market pressure on those remain allowing them to further increase their price.

      So if there were in fact a decrease in the quantity of honey being produced by honeybees the price of honey on your store shelves would be increading. Now determining what is causing the price of honey to increase if that is in fact what is happening, can be a challenge cause the price on the shelve is made up of many factors only one of which is the honey it self.

      But rest assured that if honeybee populations were in such world wide or even regional decline, whatever the reason the cost of honey on the self would be increasing. If the quantity of honey available to the market was X and sold at price Y, and then this total declined to X -20% there are no market pressures that could or would keep the price at Y. In fact the market pressure would be upward on price Y, to recover the margins lost by not being able to sell that lost 20% in quantity. Producers who were operating inefficiently would go out of business, reducing further the market pressure, thus further allowing prices to increase.

      So while it can be difficult to determine what exactly is causing a price increase, the fact that prices are stable without question show that the quantity of product available at the same cost remains stable, which further without question shows that the Conditions claimed are not in fact the case.

  9. 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.

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

  11. 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.

    1. Again the reason why a price to the average consumer goes up is difficult if not impossible to ascertain. Retail prices impacted by many factors in addition to the raw product, such as the cost of fuel, labor, government regulation, media reports, seasonal variations, weather etc.

      To claim any price increase has been caused by one relatively slow moving event is outrageous.

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

    1. Your comment of prices and what they reflect couldn’t be more wrong. The willingness to pay a price is a factor in what a producer can ask without question. However your position that it is the only factor shows an alarming ignorance of economics.

      Your claim that the supply of the product available to the market has no bearing in the cost is SO WRONG as to be laughable.

      Your claim also dismisses as irrelevant the cost factors to get the product to market, labor, transportation, government regulation, trade barriers etc.

      If your view was correct gasoline prices would be forever stable and would be 2,3,5 times what they are. But in fact the cost of gasoline is directly related to the cost of rude oil, which is directly related to the global supply (not just current production levels, but future planned production), government intervention. The consumer has shown a willingness to pay over $7 a gallon and in fact the price has not yet been reached were the price per gallon has resulted in such a drop in demand that oil companies started losing money. Therefore according to you the price of gas should be the highest price ever paid and should remain there. But that is not what happens. I fact what happens is that as a price increases resulting in higher profit margins competitors enter the market or increase production in order to reap the higher profits. As that happens (as the supply grows) the price ND profit margins fall.

      Take another example, the iphone. Each new iPhone is introduced at a very high price. Apple has total control over the price and supply of there phone. They know from market data and pretty orders how many they can expect to sell and adjust manufacturing to supply just under that quantity in order to support the price. If they over produced the supply, shorter after introduction you would see the price fall, as dealers and stores holding the inventory aren’t turning that inventory fast enough. With unsold inventory in stores, Apple starts to have an inventory problem. So the words On Sale or Discount start to appear.

      It is sad thar the knowledge and understanding of something so important in everybodies live as basic economics us so poorly understood by so many.

  14. @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.

  15. @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.

  16. @Stephen Downes

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


    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.

  17. 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.

  18. @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”.

  19. @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.

  20. @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.

  21. @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.

  22. Nice article, since I am writing an argument essay about the exact subject, I have a few points that might not match what you have here.
    – First of all seems like you did not do much research about the reason behind why we lost thousands of honey bees but rather dug up facts and build upon what other well-known people have said.
    For example nothing was mentioned about CCD (Colony Collapse Disorder) or the process of pollination. Honey Bees are more than just almonds and actual honey down in the super market, without having these small insects or just by losing a majority of them the entire echo system will collapse.
    Pollination is the process that makes and creates a wide variety of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables that we eat everyday. Also livestock is affected by this since their main source of food comes from grass, roots, and any form of greens.
    As a reader I am not convinced the points that you are making probably because you never showed us a type of graph or chart about the rate of honey bees dying compared to the ones being born everyday. Of course the Malaria mosquito has killed millions of humans with its contagious virus but at the same time there are billions of new born infants everyday across the globe. Sounds sort of similar to the scenario that you just built up, but if we could stop the virus within this mosquito millions of lives can be saved.
    Same situation with honey bees only difference is that these hardworking insects fly thousands of miles away from their hive just to start a positive action of pollination however the growing number of humans only ask for more sources within this planet. Something that probably needs to be discussed within a different argument!
    Happy arguing!!

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