A surprising decline of pollination services in USA

nytimes graphicThe Feb 27 the New York Times article Honeybees Vanish, Leaving Crops and Keepers in Peril describes the recent poorly understood decline in US honeybee populations. While the causes of this decline are not understood, such a decline has been expected by scientists. For example, last year’s US National Research Council report on the Status of Pollinators in North America warned about the many threats facing pollinators and bees in particular.

The introduced European honeybees are the major source of pollination for many crops (See graph). These bees have displaced populations of native bees, reducing the diversity of pollinators.

The honeybee decline seems to match Holling’s pathology of natural resource management. Pollination services are increasingly provided by a single highly managed population. In the US many beekeepers make more money by providing pollination services than making honey. This population has become increasingly vulnerable to disturbance, while the intensive monocultures of industrial agriculture has become dependent on artificial pollination. The NYTimes article describes the situation:

Once the domain of hobbyists with a handful of backyard hives, beekeeping has become increasingly commercial and consolidated. Over the last two decades, the number of beehives, now estimated by the Agriculture Department to be 2.4 million, has dropped by a quarter and the number of beekeepers by half.

Pressure has been building on the bee industry. The costs to maintain hives, also known as colonies, are rising along with the strain on bees of being bred to pollinate rather than just make honey. And beekeepers are losing out to suburban sprawl in their quest for spots where bees can forage for nectar to stay healthy and strong during the pollination season.

“There are less beekeepers, less bees, yet more crops to pollinate,” Mr. Browning said. “While this sounds sweet for the bee business, with so much added loss and expense due to disease, pests and higher equipment costs, profitability is actually falling.”

A Cornell University study has estimated that honeybees annually pollinate more than $14 billion worth of seeds and crops in the United States, mostly fruits, vegetables and nuts. “Every third bite we consume in our diet is dependent on a honeybee to pollinate that food,” said Zac Browning, vice president of the American Beekeeping Federation.

The bee losses are ranging from 30 to 60 percent on the West Coast, with some beekeepers on the East Coast and in Texas reporting losses of more than 70 percent; beekeepers consider a loss of up to 20 percent in the offseason to be normal.

Beekeepers now earn many times more renting their bees out to pollinate crops than in producing honey. Two years ago a lack of bees for the California almond crop caused bee rental prices to jump, drawing beekeepers from the East Coast.

This year the price for a bee colony is about $135, up from $55 in 2004, said Joe Traynor, a bee broker in Bakersfield, Calif.

A typical bee colony ranges from 15,000 to 30,000 bees. But beekeepers’ costs are also on the rise. In the past decade, fuel, equipment and even bee boxes have doubled and tripled in price.

The cost to control mites has also risen, along with the price of queen bees, which cost about $15 each, up from $10 three years ago.

To give bees energy while they are pollinating, beekeepers now feed them protein supplements and a liquid mix of sucrose and corn syrup carried in tanker-sized trucks costing $12,000 per load. Over all, Mr. Bradshaw figures, in recent years he has spent $145 a hive annually to keep his bees alive, for a profit of about $11 a hive, not including labor expenses. The last three years his net income has averaged $30,000 a year from his 4,200 bee colonies, he said.

9 thoughts on “A surprising decline of pollination services in USA”

  1. One might also consider the effects of multiple pesticides and in particular, genetically modified food crops that contain an pesticide inserted into the plant’s dna. There are also specific pesticides and fungicides deemed safe for adult honeybee which are meant to be applied only at the seed level, which are now being used at the foliage level.

    Food for thought…

    David Larson

  2. why has the bee population gone down so far?
    I am working on my freshman project in the Northshore School District. For our project we have to design a product and we are going to start a self pollinating farm where we rent out our bee hives to local farms to encourage farming in our region, which has a particularly high unemployment rate. We need to know what is causing the bees to decline and die so quickly. What ways are there to save them and to save us money?

    Please respond quickly.

  3. What you can do:
    1) Buy organic – this supports the whole movement.
    2) Require producers and our governments to list GMO and pesticides on the labels of food products so consumers have a choice, and know what they are consuming and contributing to. Pesticide producers should proudly stand behind safe products, and dodge labeling otherwise.
    3) Start beekeeping – it is easy, assuming you are not allergic.
    4) Enact bee protection legislation – bees are not pests.
    5) Create bee habitat.
    6) Create and protect native bee habitat.
    7) Never use pesticides, and discourage others from doing so.
    8) Provide wildlife habitat, where wildlife can drink, forage, and feed.
    9) Set up a backyard pond to give fresh water to wildlife.
    10) Switch to renewable energy.
    11) Disregard myths about “killer bees”, learn the facts instead.
    12) Remember the DUST BOWL!

  4. There ain’t beekeepers anymore.
    What we’ve got here is just a bunch of beeusers.
    People who don’t see living creatures being integrated part of human environment but flying dollars. That’s the problem. Greed and lack of education. Hardcore beekeeping requires extensive knowledge of botany, bee biology, genetics, local environment and so on. Who has brain and time for this ? At the other side of the token is the Bee Industry trying to fulfill the need for super-bee, so they produce artificially enhanced bee stock in order to create a colony able to withstand inhuman environment and deadly conditions bees are working in.
    All of the above is not the worst.
    What is really dangerous is the absence of local beekeepers in most of communities because they are the first who can alarm people about environmental disasters. Without them we are completely defenseless.

  5. looks bad, marine environment is whacked out too, too many corpo4rate nuts, too little control, maybe too late.

    looking towards the oceans for survival, looks like the only direction that still has food production potential.

    the bees going down is a very serious problem, a problem the greeders cant handle.


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