Where the bee sucks, there suck I

The mass media’s latest assault on public confidence is a series of articles about the mass deaths of bees. As is usual, the articles either misquote statistics or give statistics that are carefully worded in such a way that one is unable to determine how significant the effect is.

A great example of a carefully worded article is the money.cnn article of March 29, 2007, The mysterious deaths of the honeybees. Let us carefully examine the statistics mentioned in this article:

It begins with “Beekeepers throughout the United States have been losing between 50 and 90 percent of their honeybees over the past six months“, which seems to imply that there is no bee keeper who has lost less than 10% of their bees. But reading further, one finds the (probably more accurate statement) “Most of the beekeepers who have recently reported heavy losses associated with CCD are large commercial migratory beekeepers, some of whom are losing 50 percent to 90 percent of their colonies.” Thus the problem is mostly restricted to “large commercial migratory” beekeepers, and then, only “some of whom” are losing bees at these rates.

Nor are the losses throughout the US. Instead, one finds ” Losses have been reported in migratory operations in California, Florida, Oklahoma and Texas, but in February some larger keepers of nonmigratory bees, particularly from the mid-Atlantic region and the Pacific Northwest reported significant losses of more than 50 percent.” So the problem is largely restricted to the coasts, and a few nonmigratory bees. Rather than losing 10 to 50% of the nation’s bees, we’ve lost 10 to 50% of a portion of the nation’s bees. How much did we actually lose? It is impossible to put a number on it from the data provided, but we might guess 10% of the total overall bee population might be about right.

The economic effects of the problem are clearly quite small, but that is not how it is being played in these articles: “Though economists differ in calculating the exact dollar value of honeybee pollination, virtually all estimates range in the billions of dollars,” she told representatives at the House hearing.” First, the estimate is not for the cost of the loss of 10% of honeybee pollination, but the estimates are for the loss of ALL honeybee pollination. Second, no numbers are given, but clearly some estimates are below $1 billion. We can suppose that the estimated figures are maybe $2 billion given a loss of 100% of the bee population. With actual losses of around 10%, we can guess that the economic cost is around $200 million, or about $1 per person in the country. In other words, you might notice the price of honey rising, but any increases in the price of food aren’t going to be caused by bees.

The importance of bees in the environment is described by this sentence: “And the impact goes far beyond direct bee products like honey and wax. Three-quarters of the world’s 250,000 flowering plants – including many fruits and vegetables – require pollination to reproduce.” But the losses in bees described in the article are to commercial honeybees. Most bees are not honeybees. Most pollination is not done by any sort of bee. To learn more about pollination from a farming viewpoint, see the pollinator.com website

So much for what the statistics that the article presents (and this is one of the better written articles). For a more scientific article see U C Davis. What does the article fail to mention? (1) What is the life cycle of a bee hive? (2) How long does it take to make a bee hive? (3) What alternatives are there to bee fertilization? (4) Has this ever happened before? In short, the article can easily give the reader the impression that we are doomed, this is new, and it does not present any way out. Let’s discuss these unmentioned subjects one by one.

(1) One thinks of a bee hive as something that one puts bees into once, and then it keeps bees forever. But queens only last 2 years at most. To keep bees longer than a single season requires medication (whch must end up in the hone). To have a complete hive, full with 100 pounds of honey at the end of the year, requires only a queen and a very small number of bees at the begining of the year. The simple solution to this is to keep ones bees for only one year, unmedicated, and this is what some amateurs are now doing. See the article at the Oregon State Beekeepers association: The Ways of Winter.

(2) Suppose that you have 10 honeybee hives and 2 of them have been killed off. How long will it take you to replace the two missing hives? It turns out that if the queen is missing from a hive, the worker bees will begin raising new queens. So the simplest way of restarting a hive is to split a working hive in two. One does this by simply pulling a brood frame (i.e. a frame with larvae in it) from the good hive and putting it into the empty hive (with the worker bees that go with it. A few weeks later you will have two functional hives. The process is described on wikipedia, where it is called a “nuc”. By the end of the season, you will have two full hives.

This is the method of propagating bees that is available to amateurs. Professionals use far more complicated methods that allow far greater rates of increase. But even the amateur method allows for an easy doubling of the number of hives per year. Thus even a 50% loss in hives can be made up by the end of the year. For this reason, if you expect certain crop productions to be reduced due to an inadquate number of honeybees, you would be well advised to pay close attention to what time of year the pollination is needed. For example, apples need pollination in April or May, which is late enough in the season that bee populations should be strong.

(3) Probably the most effected is the almond producers who need early February to mid March pollination. This is too close to winter to allow bee populations to recover and, what with the constant increase in almond acreage, the problem is becoming worse and worse each year. You should see the almond growers resort to more natural pollination methods soon. My suggestion is that they plant crops near their almond trees that provide forage for pollinators all summer long. Crops like watermelon and cucumbers bloom much later and are not likely to be significantly effected by this problem.

By the way, regarding staple field crops like corn, wheat, soybeans, rice or potatoes, none of these require pollination. It is quite impossible to plant huge acreage in a monoculture crop that requires insect pollination as there would be too many plants requiring pollination all at the same time. The primary pollination problem in the US appears to be almonds, with about 1000 square miles, mostly in California which accounts for half the world production. This is about 1% of the acreage devoted to corn in the US. And substantial amounts of these crops are fed to animals. Even in the impossible event that pollination by bees completely collapsed worldwide, the human race would not go hungry; instead, grain prices would rise until meat production was cut off and what would have been animal feed would be redirected to human. And the next year the fallow fields that needed pollination would be replanted with crops needing none.

(4) Finally, the problem of having ones bees disappear is not anything new to the industry. “The condition was first described in 1915 and was called Disappearing Disease because the disease was self-limiting and disappeared. Through the years, that name has increasingly been broadened to describe any mysterious instance where adult bees disappear – not the disease.” This is from Disappearing bee syndrome

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2 Comments

Filed under ecology, farming

2 responses to “Where the bee sucks, there suck I

  1. carlbrannen

    Update: It appears that I could end up the owner of 12 hives next week. My buddy is building an ethanol plant in Moses Lake, Washington. As part of the deal, he’s buying various plots of land. One of them has 12 hives on it. I don’t know if the hives are included, but if they are, I suppose I’ll be in the bee business.

    Moses Lake is a desert farming community and has some use for pollination. These sorts of businesses are lots of fun, partly because you get to meet people you would otherwise never run into.

  2. carlbrannen

    Cream:
    1 cup shortening
    2 cup sugar
    2 eggs, beaten

    Alternate:
    5 cup sifted flour
    1 teaspoon nutmeg
    1 teaspoon salt
    1 teaspoon soda

    with:
    1 cup sour cream
    1 teaspoon vanilla

    Roll into balls and pat out. Must be 1/2 inch thick and 2 1/2 inch diameter. About 2.5 dozen.

    Bake 8-10 minutes at 450 F.

    Be careful not to overbake. Can be reheated in microwave to good effect.

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