Daniel Lemire's blog

, 4 min read

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).