In the “post-truth” era, it is increasingly difficult to discriminate fact from fiction and information surrounding honey bees is no exception. My goal in this piece is to explore some of the most common misconceptions about honey bees and provide some tools that can help mitigate the spread of misinformation. In this article, I’ll be answering some relatively simple questions which have surprisingly complex answers, including:

  • Are bees going extinct?
  • Is the honey bee population really declining?
  • What is CCD?

Let’s start with one of the most alarming questions that I am consistently asked: Are bees going extinct? The short answer is “No.” The long answer is “It depends on what you mean by ‘bees’.” The answer to this question might be obvious to American Bee Journal readers, but I think we often don’t realize how the average person might interpret it and we should tailor our answer accordingly.

By our best estimates, there are about 20,000 different species of bees and Apis mellifera is just one of them. Many other bee species (and non-bee insects) are also important pollinators1, and sadly some of their populations are indeed critically low. Of those that haven’t reached critically low numbers, a fraction still are heading on a downward trend2. Most of the time though, when we talk about ‘bees,’ A. mellifera is what people mean. With the recent proposal to add some endemic Hawaiian bee species to the endangered list (interesting how this caused such sudden, widespread alarm when there has been an order of magnitude more bee species listed as endangered – sadly – in Europe for years already3 . . . but I digress), it became clear to me that using “bees,” “honey bees” and “A. mellifera” interchangeably is contributing to misconceptions about our pollinators.

To date, most media reporting on “bees” has been about honey bees specifically, covering stories from colony deaths to overturned transport trucks to pesticide kills. In this context, when a headline comes out saying “Bees Added to Endangered Species List,” the ensuing confusion is understandable: people often see “bees” and mentally replace this with “honey bees,” even if that’s not the species in question. Even if the article clarifies what species are really in trouble, so many people read headlines and skip the article, leaving only that initial impression. So, the answer to the question “Are bees going extinct?” is “A fraction of bee species are either extinct, endangered or proposed to be called endangered, but most bee species are not in critical condition” (that being said, the best time to begin conservation efforts is before it’s needed). However, most of the time what I’m implicitly being asked is “are honey bees going extinct,” to which the answer is definitely “No.”

This leads me to a second question: “Is the honey bee population really declining?” Like with the previous answer, here there are a few layers of complexity . . . the short answer is “No,” but the long answer is either “It depends on the country and time of year” or, more provokingly, “No, but what you should really be asking is if the colony growth rate is sufficient to keep up with pollination demand.”

As most of you are probably intimately familiar with, every year there is a sharp decline in colony numbers over the course of the winter. The overwintering loss is an important statistic for the agricultural industry, as it is the first indication of how the supply/demand balance of pollination services is going to play out in the coming growing season. It’s also an eye-catching news clip. But the detail that’s usually left out of the news is the subsequent population growth in the spring and summer due to splits and imports. Even if you consider the summer death incidence, if colony numbers are surveyed annually at the same time of year, the population in the US is relatively stable. Total colony numbers in the US were declining steadily for many years, hitting a low point between 2006 and 2008, but since then the numbers have stabilized or if anything, are increasing. It is true that the 2016 report from the USDA3 found an 8% overall decline in colony numbers compared to the year prior, but just like one cold year doesn’t change the fact that the globe is warming, one year of moderate declines doesn’t erase the general upward trend. Now, you might also say, “Hang on, if you’re counting imports, that just means the population is going down somewhere else!” to which I would respond “Even on the global scale, colony numbers are still increasing”5-7. Looking at data on this kind of scale is beneficial because country-by-country, there can be non-bee-health reasons why colony numbers might change (i.e. economic and political drivers, which is what’s been suggested in the US7), but effects of these local fluctuations are diminished at the global scale. Overall though, I have to hand it to the beekeepers: it takes a lot of labor and collective diligence to still manage to achieve overall colony increases in the face of all the challenges of modern beekeeping.

Even though colony numbers are increasing, that doesn’t mean we have enough bees. Demand for pollination services in the agricultural sector is increasing by a magnitude that surpasses the corresponding increase we’ve seen in colony numbers (think: 300% vs. 45%) according to a paper published using UN data in 20097. A lot can change in eight years, though, and we are probably due for another assessment. In addition, some other research (by the same author) suggests that despite an apparent pollinator shortage relative to demand, the yields from pollinator-dependent crops have been rising8. This study spanned from 1960 to 2008, and again, whether the same beat is followed post-2008 is not yet clear. It could also be that changes in farming practices and technology have increased production and compensated for potential yield losses in much the same way that beekeepers have grown their colony numbers despite their own challenges. The authors argue that in such a case, there still should have been less of a yield increase for pollinator-dependent crops compared to pollinator-independent crops, but I’m not sure it’s so simplistic. This view assumes that the application of compensating technology and practices is equal between both crop types, which might not be the case since the farmers know which of their crops could be most vulnerable to pollinator shortages, allowing them to focus their efforts. Observational studies like this are no doubt informative, but with so many uncontrolled variables they are tricky to interpret.

Now, this next question is not actually one that I am ever asked, but I wish I was: “What is colony collapse disorder?”

Once upon a time, colony collapse disorder (less formally, “CCD” or “colony collapse”) referred to a mysterious type of colony death with a specific set of symptoms (taken straight from the USDA): “1) Little to no build-up of dead bees in the hive or at the hive entrance 2) Rapid loss of adult honey bee population despite the presence of queen, capped brood, and food reserves 3) Absence or delayed robbing of the food reserves 4) Loss not attributable to varroa or nosema loads.” However, the term is now often used much more broadly to describe the general, apparently intangible cause(s) of pollinator shortages. At the same time, some diligent reporters do still use the term as its original definition would call for, and this disagreement of terminology creates a conflict for readers.

I don’t see one particular definition as being right or wrong compared to the other – language can evolve and definitions change – just this year the terms “craptacular” and “sausage fest” were added to the Oxford English Dictionary – as long as it’s agreed upon. Otherwise, we start to see the following situation: 1) a media outlet covers a story about how honey bees are dying from CCD; 2) the media consumer talks to a friendly expert, who informs them “actually, CCD hasn’t made the list of the top five reasons colonies die for years” (which is true, if you use the original definition); 3) the media consumer leaves feeling betrayed and starts to develop a distrust for the media, maybe even sparking a future career as a conspiracy theorist (just kidding, but you get my point). The term has evolved so much now that it’s probably time we, as a community, put forward a formal definition. Maybe it could even join “sausage fest” in the dictionary.

It is easy to blame media outlets for spreading misconceptions but, in reality, we are all responsible. I have read scientific articles published in respected journals (and reviewed others that may or may not be published) that still use “CCD” incorrectly, simply because it is so tempting to accept an idea as truth if it is repeated enough times. This cannot be reversed until we become more thoughtful about the information we receive. As humans, we are partial to black and white explanations that create simple stories of crooks, victims and heroes – in reality, the world is full of nuance, grey space, and black boxes which we cannot forget when we are evaluating new information. Let’s all lead the discussion and go above and beyond our responsibility to communicate facts and expose fiction as much as we can.

This article appeared in the May 2017 issue of American Bee Journal.

  1. References
    1. Rader R, Bartomeus I, Garibaldi LA et al. (2016). Non-bee insects are important contributors to global crop pollination. PNAS. 113(1): 146-51.
    2. Burkle LA, Marlin JC and Knight TM. (2013). Plant-pollinator interactions over 120 years: Loss of species, co-occurrence, and function. Science. 339(6127): 1611-15.
    3. Nieto A, Roberts SPM, Kemp J et al. (2014). European Red List of Bees. Publication Office of the European Union, Luxembourg. [web]
    4. United States Department of Agriculture. (2016). Honey bee colonies. [web]
    5. New Zealand Ministry for Primary Industries. (2015). Apiculture monitoring report. [web]
    6. The Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists. (2007 – 2016). Annual colony loss reports. [web]
    7. Aizen MA and Harder LD. (2009). The global stock of domesticated honey bees is growing slower than agriculture demand for pollination. Current Biology. 19: 915-18.
    8. Aizen MA, Garibaldi LA, Cunningham SA and Klein AM. (2008). Current Biology. Long-term global trends in crop yield and production reveal no current pollination shortage but increasing pollinator dependency. 18: 1572-75.