The last week of June is National Pollinator Week. Birds, bats and wild insects all pollinate the flowering plants around us. The most celebrated pollinator is the honeybee—and for good reason. Close to 2.5 million hives of bees are managed by fewer than 2,000 commercial beekeepers, who take their bees on the road each year to pollinate blueberries, almonds, cranberries and a cornucopia of other fruits and vegetables.
Without this cooperation of beekeeper, bee and farmer, our national diet would be less nutritious and less tasty. As even casual observers now know, however, all is not perfect in the world of bees. Colony collapse disorder, or CCD, is their most recent scourge. Over the past four years, approximately 30% of U.S. honeybees alive in the fall failed to survive to pollinate blossoms in the spring. While widespread die-offs due to disease are as old as beekeeping, dating back to the 17th century at least, this one appears worse than most. View Full Image Bloomberg .
What is truly remarkable, then, is that the pollinating services of bees, and the fruits and vegetables of their labors, have remained steady in the face of CCD. In light of this fact, we propose a celebration—to pay homage to the resilience of honeybees and to the business acumen and perseverance of commercial beekeepers. To help understand the implications of the latest wave of bee disease, and the contributions of the beekeepers who lie awake at night worrying about them, we offer the following observations based on our research:
First, the number of bees pollinating crops has been stable in recent years—CCD notwithstanding. Before CCD, U.S. beekeepers lost on average 15% of their colonies each winter. What we know about bee losses since then is that they increased immediately after the discovery of CCD in 2006 and have remained at about 30% for the past four years. Yet the increase in winter losses has not translated into fewer springtime bees. Department of Agriculture data show that total bee numbers were higher in 2010 than in any year since 1999. Losses due to CCD have been more than offset by beekeepers rebuilding bee populations, primarily by splitting and requeening their colonies.
Second, honey production by U.S. bees has been fairly stable. It was approximately the same in 2010 as it was in the several years before CCD. Finally, there is no evidence that CCD has measurably affected the pollinated food supply. If the effects of CCD were economically widespread and significant, increased costs to beekeepers would dictate that farmers would have to pay more to secure pollination services. But fees charged by beekeepers for pollinating crops have shown at most modest signs of increase since the appearance of CCD.
While fees for pollinating almonds (a bellwether for the industry) have increased in the past decade, the increases largely predate CCD, and fees have not increased in the most recent years. Commercial beekeepers routinely fight diseases and parasites that threaten their tiny livestock. They apply miticides. They monitor and manipulate their colonies' genetic stock. And they adjust to changing circumstances, such as increased winter mortality, by increasing bee populations in anticipation of winter losses.
It is these efforts that explain the relative stability of the nation's bee population and its products in the face of CCD and other diseases and parasites. Ongoing research will lead to better ways to diagnose, treat and prevent bee disease, which will be welcome to beekeepers and consumers alike. In the meantime, we can be grateful that CCD has had no measurable, let alone drastic, effects on the availability of fruits, vegetables, nuts and honey.
Beekeepers have been as busy as . . . well, as their iconic insect partners to bring this about. Mr. Rucker is a professor of agricultural economics and economics at Montana State University.
Mr. Thurman is a professor of agricultural and resource economics at North Carolina State University. Both are fellows of the Property and Environment Research Center.