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Global Honey Bee Population Increasing, Despite Local Losses

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Foragers coming in loaded with pollen on the hive landing board.

In 2007, large commercial beekeepers started reporting big drop-offs in their bee colony populations. By 2008, estimated colony losses of between 30 and 70% were being reported, as a flurry of bad news about bees made the media rounds.

The loss since then of over 40% of the nation’s commercial honey bee (Apis mellifera) colonies–most seemingly due to so-called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD; caused most likely by the IAPV virus)–ushered in predictions of dire consequences for valuable crops around the world due to a lack of pollinators.

But a recent analysis of global honey bee populations (by Aizen and Harder*) shows a 45% increase in total numbers since 1961. The data for this analysis came from a global database of managed honeybees. The same researchers note, however, that the global stock of honey bees is growing slower than the global demand for them–which comes primarily from the cultivation of “luxury” crops like fruits and nuts. The the year round demand for items like cherries, mangoes, almonds and pistachios is far out-pacing world-wide production, leading to the perception of a shortage of pollinators.

Honey bees are variable pollinators and provide a valuable “ecosystem service“. However, they don’t pollinate everything–like many staple crops such as wheat, rice. Colony losses in 2007 and 2008 did indeed impact some larger-scale agriculture, but the bee colony losses were localized to larger commercial operations in U.S. and Quebéc, and, on the market end of things, mostly impacted the luxury food supply in some regional and emerging markets (where demand has been increasing).

According to one, small-scale, “mom and pop” honey producer (which this author met recently here in Western Washington State), she saw no significant increase in her colony population losses, but also acknowledged that they can lose up to a third of their total colony population in any given season, “naturally”. This seasonal loss may be related to previously reported slow declines in commercial honey bee stocks for at least the past decade. This “natural”, slower loss may be due to a number of factors such as shifting agricultural practices, and possibly climate change.

However, world-wide, commercial honey production is responsible for an overall increase in the total population of honey bees.

But as to the the spread of CCD, it may have been facilitated by common practices amongst large commercial apiaries, such as transporting hives over long distances (to fill demand due to local shortages) and sometimes sharing their colonies with other beekeeping operations.

Apis dorsata nest, Thailand. The comb is approximately 1m across.(photo: Sean Hoyland)

The most common bees used for commercial honey production are A. mellifera and A. cerana, but other species are used by indigenous peoples the world over, such as the giant honey bee (A. dorsata) which is common across South and Southeast Asia.

Honey bees are originally from East Africa and at least one honey bee, A. mellifera was first domesticated by the ancient Egyptians during the time of the building of the Great Pyramids. The honey bee was introduced into the Americas in the 17th Century by European colonists.

* Aizen, M.L. and L. D. Harder, The global stock of domesticated honey bees is growing slower than agricultural demand for pollination, Current Biology, published on-line 7 .May, 2009. Original reference: American Scientist, July – August 2009)

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