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It’s been a while since I’ve heard much about the “beepocalypse”, but apparently many remain under the misapprehension that honeybee populations have languished under the threat of modern farming techniques. Some recent fake news on that subject appears at this link. There are two related contentions here, and both are false. One is that honeybee populations are dwindling. The other is the claim that productivity-enhancing insecticides used in modern agriculture are killing bees.

Bill Wirtz of the Brussels-based Consumer Choice Center notes the following:

… looking at the statistics of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, beehives are on the rise worldwide. The data show that as of 2020, there has been an increase of beehives by 17% since 2010, 35% since 2000, and 90% since 1961.

He also points out that efforts to prove the wild bee population in the U.S. declined over the five years ending in 2013 were based on a model laden with assumptions, as opposed to actual statistics. In any case, even if it had been true, a five-year period is hardly proof of a secular decline. Both wild and managed bee populations go through cycles based on natural conditions, and in the case of managed bees, conditions in the market for honey. In fact, high honey prices could favor growth ahead in managed bee populations, though cost factors make that less certain.

As for the insecticides widely blamed for the beepocalypse, there is no real world, field-level evidence of any link to declining bee populations. In a separate article, Wirtz cites reports from the U.S. EPA and agencies in Canada and Australia finding that the widely-blamed neonicotinoids could not be linked to harms to bee colonies. This study found that “neonics” had no lethal or “sublethal” effects on honeybees at field-level dosages, despite reports of such effects in the lab. The lab work cited sort of reminds me of the outrageous tests that led to the saccharine scare of the 1970s, when the saccharine-equivalent of 800 sugar-free soft drinks a day was fed to lab rats. Dose dependence means everything under actual field conditions.

Randy Oliver of ScientificBeekeeping.com has written several thorough analyses of the impact of neonics on bees over the years. In 2012, he posted an important article entitled “The Extinction of the Honeybee?”, in which he reported that “… honeybees were thriving at Ground Zero of neonicitinoid use”. Neonics have definite advantages relative to older pesticides: they are much safer for humans, they are more effective at targeting insects that bore and suck sap, and they can be used as seed treatments with less leaching into the surrounding environment relative to sprays.

Oliver followed that up his first piece with two companion articles in which he documented issues related to regulation, testing regimes, the field applicability of tests, problems in methodology, and interpretation of results. He identified seed planting dust as a serious problem for bees, but one that is easily managed. In the second post, Oliver evaluated a number of characteristics of bee and colony health, including learning performance, orientation, foraging, immune function, social interaction, task allocation, and effects upon brood. He summarized his review thusly (his emphasis):

Any number of scientists have diligently tried to find any sorts of sublethal effects of neonics on bees, but have failed to demonstrate adverse effects at the colony level at doses produced by seed.”

At the last link, Oliver discusses specific issues with respect to different crops, as well as other potential harms of neonics. However, seed treatments have never been implicated by researchers in bee colony collapse.

Finally, from a more recent presentation, Oliver reviews the history of bee population numbers and factors that drove them. That included infestation by two different parasitic mites in the 1980s and another pathogen in the early 2000s. These invasive waves led to use of the term Colony Collapse Disorder. While neonics had nothing to do with it, there were claims that it did. Oliver is not shy about noting other problems he identifies with the use of neonics, and he is strongly in favor of pest management approaches that rely less on pesticides. This is partly because farmers recognize the consumer resistance to pesticides, rational or otherwise. When neonics are applied properly, however, bee colony collapse is not one of those problems.

Honey prices were up strongly in 2021 (see here) and have remained strong in 2022 (here). That would bode well for the managed bee population. However, costs have increased sharply as well, blunting beekeeper incentives. Suppliers of beekeeping equipment are also facing higher costs. Given these pressures, it’s not clear whether the managed bee population will expand this year, but there is no threat to the long-term health of the bees in the proper use of neonics.