How capitalism saved the bees: a decade after colony collapse disorder began, pollination entrepreneurs have staved off beepocalypse.

Author:Regan, Shawn
 
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YOU'VE HEARD THE story: Honeybees are disappearing. Beginning in 2006, beekeepers began reporting mysteriously large losses to their honeybee hives over the winter. The bees weren't just dying--they were abandoning their hives altogether. The strange phenomenon, dubbed colony collapse disorder, soon became widespread. Ever since, beekeepers have reported higher-than-normal honeybee deaths, raising concerns about a coming silent spring.

The media swiftly declared disaster. Time called it a "bee-pocalypse"; Quartz went with "beemageddon." By 2013, National Public Radio was declaring "a crisis point for crops" and a Time cover was foretelling "a world without bees." A share of the blame has gone to everything from genetically modified crops, pesticides, and global warming to cellphones and high-voltage electric transmission lines. The Obama administration created a task force to develop a "national strategy" to promote honeybees and other pollinators, calling for $82 million in federal funding to address pollinator health and enhance 7 million acres of land. This year both Cheerios and Patagonia have rolled out save-the-bees campaigns; the latter is circulating a petition calling on the feds to "protect honeybee populations" by imposing stricter regulations on pesticide use.

A threat to honeybees should certainly raise concerns. They pollinate a wide variety of important food crops--about a third of what we eat--and add about $15 billion in annual value to the economy, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And beekeepers are still reporting above-average bee deaths. In 2016, U.S. beekeepers lost 44 percent of their colonies over the previous year, the second-highest annual loss reported in the past decade.

But here's what you might not have heard. Despite the increased mortality rates, there has been no downward trend in the total number of honeybee colonies in the United States over the past 10 years. Indeed, there are more honeybee colonies in the country today than when colony collapse disorder began.

Beekeepers have proven incredibly adept at responding to this challenge. Thanks to a robust market for pollination services, they have addressed the increasing mortality rates by rapidly rebuilding their hives, and they have done so with virtually no economic effects passed on to consumers. It's a remarkable story of adaptation and resilience, and the media has almost entirely ignored it.

THE BEE BUSINESS

THE CHIEF REASON commercial beekeeping exists is to help plants have sex. Some crops, such as corn and wheat, can rely on the wind to transfer pollen from stamen to pistil. But others, including a variety of fruits and nuts, need assistance. And since farmers can't always depend solely on bats, birds, and other wild pollinators to get the job done, they turn to honeybees for help with artificial insemination. Unleashed by the thousands, the bees improve the quality and quantity of the farms' yields; in return, the plants provide nectar, which the bees use to produce honey.

Honeybees are essentially livestock. Their owners breed them, rear them, and provide proper nutrition and veterinary care to them. Unlike bumblebees and wasps, honeybees are not native to North America; the primary commercial species, the European honeybee, is thought to have been introduced by English settlers in the 17th century.

Commercial beekeepers are migratory. They truck their hives across the country in tractor trailers on a journey to "follow the bloom," stacking their hives on semis and moving at night while the bees are at rest. Most travel to California in the early spring to pollinate almonds. After that, they take their own routes. Some go to Oregon and Washington for apples, pears, and cherries; others to the apple orchards of New York. Some pollinate fruits and vegetables in Florida in the early spring, followed...

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