Maybe you’ve heard the buzz: The health of the honeybee population is in decline, and that could have potentially serious consequences for our food and our economy.
The problem is no secret. It’s been the subject of a recent documentary and now a Time magazine cover story. But the essential mystery remains unsolved: Over the past six years or so, millions of beehives have collapsed for reasons that still aren’t completely clear. “In the U.S., we used to have around 5 million colonies, and now we have only 2 million left, approximately,” Chensheng (Alex) Lu, an associate professor in the Harvard School of Public Health’s Department of Environmental Health, told The Fiscal Times.
The problem, known as Colony Collapse Disorder, influences much more than the price of honey. Fewer pollinating honeybees (Apis mellifera ) could very well translate into scarcer and costlier food. “Pollination services are a vital part of global agricultural production, valued at over $125 billion annually,” Dr. Jennifer Sass, senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told The Fiscal Times in an email. A sizable portion of that total comes from the U.S. “Counting both directly and indirectly dependent crops, insect pollination added more than $29 billion (2010 USD) to U.S. agricultural output in 2010,” Nicholas W. Calderone, an entomologist at Cornell University, wrote in a 2012 report. Honeybees were responsible for a majority of that, or $19.2 billion, Calderone calculated.
Even more modest estimates of the financial stakes of the honeybee deaths aren’t far lower. “The most conservative estimate is that bee-pollinated crops total about $15 billion in value in the U.S. annually. Native pollinators, which are also in decline, provide an estimated $3 billion annually,” R. Thomas Van Arsdall of the Pollinator Partnership, a nonprofit organization that works to protect the health of managed and native pollinating animals vital to agriculture, said in an email.
The decline in honeybees might not affect everything you eat — crops such as wheat and rice don’t need to be pollinated by bees or other insects — but it does affect some vital foods. “Of the 100 crops that provide 90 percent of the world's food, over 70 are pollinated by bees,” Sass says. “In North America, honey bees pollinate nearly 95 kinds of fruits.” Bees and other pollinators are key for crops such as apples, almonds, avocados, cherries, oranges and others. They also indirectly play a role in crops grown from seeds that require pollination, such as sugar beets, asparagus, broccoli, carrots and onions, according to a 2012 report by Nicholas W. Calderone, an entomologist at Cornell University. The foods most dependent on pollination that are some of the healthiest — what nutritionists say we should be eating.
It’s harder to directly link honeybee health to the availability and price of certain crops. There have been numerous studies showing how important the honeybee is for the growing of specific crops, but no one has made the absolute direct connection between higher food prices and fewer pollinators. While other factors such as drought play a part in food prices, having fewer pollinators does have a negative impact.
“To date, there is no evidence that the decline in pollinators has affected production or yield in the aggregate,” Calderone wrote via email, “but data for individual crops is still being examined.”
And it does warrant close examination. Consider almonds. The U.S. supplies more than 80 percent of the world’s almonds, and California values the crop as its largest agricultural export. Almond trees need pollinators to produce these edible seeds (almonds are not nuts). “The single most important factor determining a good yield is pollination during the bloom period,” an almond industry brochure notes.
The increased cost doesn’t stop with food growers, either. For commercial beekeepers, the costs of replacing dead colonies is $300 to $400 a hive, Lu said, meaning a beekeeper who loses 2,000 colonies faces $600,000 in replacement costs. “Sooner or later, many commercial beekeepers will quit this profession,” Lu said. “Then there will be even fewer colonies available for pollination.”
With so much depending on the answer, scientists are still trying to determine just what is causing decimation of honeybees. Several possible causes have surfaced, particularly the pesticides neonicotinoids and fipronil, both of which were recently banned or severely limited in the EU. Back in May, the USDA and EPA jointly released a comprehensive report stating that there are multiple factors in the decline of honeybee colonies, including parasites and disease, genetics, poor nutrition and pesticide exposure. That report said the parasitic Varroa mite “is recognized as the major factor underlying colony loss in the U.S. and other countries.”
Other recent research suggests an overlooked culprit — fungicides — might be behind the wholesale demise. A study by scientists at the University of Maryland and the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently published in the journal PLOS One concluded that fungicides might indirectly be implicated in the decline of the bees. While a direct cause of Colony Collapse Disorder is thought to be the gut parasite Nosema coronae, the study found that fungicides, typically considered safe for the bees, have been shown to weaken the immune system of honeybees so that they are more susceptible to the virus.
While scientists are still piecing together this complex puzzle, food growers and consumers could find themselves facing tough choices. Reduced availability of pollinating insects could lead to market adjustments – producers planting different crops, or consumers balking at higher prices and opting for other alternatives, which might not be the best health-wise. In other words, you might ultimately have fewer options and pay more for them. No wonder the buzz is getting louder.