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Honeybee populations are hitting record numbers. Weren’t they dying off before?

Kai Ryssdal, Sarah Leeson, and Sofia Terenzio May 16, 2024
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Honeybees were too valuable to fail. Barbara Gindl/APA/AFP via Getty Images

Honeybee populations are hitting record numbers. Weren’t they dying off before?

Kai Ryssdal, Sarah Leeson, and Sofia Terenzio May 16, 2024
Heard on:
Honeybees were too valuable to fail. Barbara Gindl/APA/AFP via Getty Images
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A little more than a decade ago, environmentalists and agriculturalists were sounding the alarm for bees. Some 10 million beehives had been lost in the previous years, and scientists weren’t completely sure why. The consequences of this widespread loss could have been dire for crops and humans.

Today though, bees are still around. In fact, the U.S. might have more honeybees than ever, with more than 1 million bee colonies added in the last five years, bringing the total to nearly 4 million. Bees are still struggling in many ways, but they’re far from endangered.

Bryan Walsh, editorial director at Vox, joined “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal to talk about how we all got it so wrong, and what the reality is for bees today. An edited transcript of their conversation is below.

Kai Ryssdal: So you wrote in Time Magazine, like 10-ish years ago, about bees. The headline was “A World Without Bees.” And yet we still have bees. What happened?

Bryan Walsh: We clearly do. Yes. I mean, sometimes that happens. When you’ve done this as long as I have, like 20 or 25 years, sometimes you were right and sometimes you’ll be wrong. As it turns out, the bees were a lot more resilient than perhaps some of us expected. But also, I think the reason why they are is because they turned out to be really valuable to us. I think a lot of it came down to the fact that we just looked at honeybees in the wrong way. We saw them as kind of a wild species at risk of extinction. They’re actually more like a domesticated species.

Ryssdal: And there is an economic imperative to keep them around, right? To keep, you know, supplying that system.

Walsh: Oh, absolutely. I mean, they are incredibly important to the farming system, especially to things like the almond crop. Out in the West Coast, in the spring, you will have something like 42 billion bees who move to California to help with the pollination of almond trees. And without them, cultivating almonds really wouldn’t be possible. No almond milk, no almond products. So just that itself is incredibly valuable. And that really creates an economic imperative to keep these bees going, even though they are subject to all kinds of environmental and disease threats, as well as just the sheer stress that comes with playing that role in the agricultural system.

Ryssdal: Well, lay that out a little bit, right, because, you know, you describe bee colonies that are weakened by travel and stress and all of that.

Walsh: Yeah, absolutely. The big concern is something called the varroa mite. It’s a really scary thing if you see it up front, and it can really destroy whole colonies. There are viruses that go with this too. And then there’s just simply the fact that bees are not meant to be moved, you know, hundreds or thousands of miles to help pollinate almond trees. That’s not something they can really withstand. So, in the most recent survey, I believe beekeepers report losing something like almost 50% of their managed honeybee colonies. I mean, that’s just the bees that are dying, and then they need to replace them, and that’s what we have now. They die, we get more, we keep doing this over and over again.

Ryssdal: This is a really stupid question. If all these bees are dying, where do we get more bees?

Walsh: They just keep breeding them. That is one positive thing, that they can breed very quickly. And if you put enough money into it, you will do that. Actually, we know exactly how many honeybee colonies we have in America as of 2022. That’s 3,800,015, according to the extremely detailed Census of Agriculture.

Ryssdal: You make a comparison to this piece between the bee scare of the early 2000s and peak oil. Lay that out for us, would you?

Walsh: Yeah, it’s interesting. Both things happened around the same time. If you remember in the mid-aughts, you started hearing about colony collapse disorder. At the same time, that was kind of when we saw oil prices getting into the triple digits for the first time. There was a real concern that we were going to max out on oil, which would be catastrophic for the global economy, among other things. Fast forward to now, the world is producing more oil than it ever has before, the U.S. is producing more oil than any country has ever. And that simply responds to that economic need. When the need is great, capitalism is pretty good, actually, at finding a solution to it.

Ryssdal: This is going to sound more flippant than I mean it to, but what I hear here is we should monetize, you know, like the snowy plover, or take your pick of endangered species, to really preserve them somehow, right? To put an economic imperative behind them.

Walsh: I mean, there’s a theory behind that. There’s something called ecosystem services, where what if we put a price on the value of forests, on clean water, things like that? Maybe that’s what will get us to protect it. It’s an idea that works in some ways, but it’s harder to put in practice. It’s almost like putting an imaginary price on it, or something that’s more theoretical. Whereas a farmer can make a lot of money by producing a lot of bees and taking them to California to participate in the almond crop, or obviously, an oil company can make a lot of money by finding a new supply of oil. That’s a clear connection. I think that’s why you see this happening, as opposed to like, let’s put these prices on nature, and that’ll solve everything.

Ryssdal: Just to put a punctuation mark on this, we’re going to keep overworking these bees, and we’re going to keep having them because we need them and they are money, right?

Walsh: That’s exactly right. They will remain as busy as bees, I suppose, in service to us.

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