Colony Collapse Disorder Impact on the Economy

What Happens If We Don't Save the Bees in Time?

Bee Colony Collapse Disorder
A man dressed as a beekeeper joins campaigners on Parliament Square on April 26, 2013. Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

What Is It?

Bee colony collapse disorder kills worker bees that have left the hive to search for food. They simply don't come back. Between 1947 and 2005, the number of bees in the United States declined by over 40 percent, from 5.9 million to 2.4 million. A third of the bees die during the winter months. That's almost double the typical rate of 15 - 20 percent in a healthy colony.

The crisis is escalating.

In April 2016, researchers reported that beekeepers lost 44 percent of their colonies in the prior 12 months. That's up from 42.1 percent in 2015, and 39 percent in 2014.

2015 was the first time in history that keepers lost more bees during the summer than in the winter. If colony collapse disorder continues at the current rate, managed honey bees will disappear by 2035. 

The problem began in the 1980s. That's when two bloodsucking parasitic mites entered the United States. But many scientists believe that insecticides had already weakened the bees' immune system. (Source: Committee on the Status of Pollinators Presentation to the U.S. House of Representatives, March 29, 2007)

Effect on the Economy

The Western honey bee is the world's premier managed pollinator species. Demand for its services has soared from fruit, nut (especially almonds) and vegetable growers. That represents almost 100 crop species, making up one-third of the average diet.

Bee pollination is worth $15 billion to the U.S. farming industry. 

Disruption of the honey bee supply raised prices for domestically grown nuts, fruits and vegetables. In California, it tripled pollination fees. Beekeepers charged almond growers $51.99 per hive in 2003. By 2009 that rose to $157.03 a hive.

By 2016, that fee increased to between $180 to $200 a hive.

Over the last six years, the bee industry spent $2 billion to replace 10 million hives. That's for an industry that's makes $500 million a year. (Source: "A Bee Mogul Confronts the Crisis in His Field," The New York Times, Feruary 16, 2017) 

These high costs force beekeepers to charge more to replace hives when they collapse. Higher fees cost almond growers an extra $83 million a year. They pass those costs on as higher prices. (Source: Carman, Hoy. 2011. "The Estimated Impact of Bee Colony Collapse Disorder on Almond Pollination Fees." ARE Update 14(5): 9-11. University of California Giannini Foundation of Agricultural Economics.)

Colony collapse disorder also affects the beef and dairy industries. Bees pollinate clover, hay and other forage crops. As they die off, it raises the cost of feedstock. That increases beef and milk prices at the grocery store.

The Disorder will lead to increased imports of produce from foreign countries where it doesn't exist.That will raise the U.S. trade deficit.

What Is the Government Doing to Stop It?

On January 10, 2017, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed the rusty patched bumblebee on its endangered species list.

Regulations to protect the bee were due to take effect on February 17. Instead, they were delayed until March 21. That's because President Trump signed an executive order delaying all regulations from taking effect until then. (Source: "Trump Administration Sued for Delaying Protections for Endangered Bee," HuffPost, February 14, 2017.)

In May 2015, President Obama's Bee and Pollinator Task Force reported the results of a yearlong study. Its goal was to reduce honeybee colony losses during winter to 15 percent within a decade. It will also increase the Monarch butterfly population. A public/private partnership pledged to restore 7 million acres of land for pollinators over five years. That includes forests burned by wildfire, office landscaping and maintenance of roadside habitats.

The Environmental Protection Agency halted approval of any new use of neonicotinoid pesticides.

It proposes to prohibit these pesticides when crops are in bloom and bees are present. It will also re-evaluate the use of these pesticides. It plans to publish ecological and health risk assessments in 2017 and 2018. These pesticides have already been outlawed by the European Union. (Source: "How the White House Plans to Help the Humble Bee Maintain Its Buzz," The Washington Post, May 19, 2015. "EPA Actions to Protect Pollinators," Environmental Protection Agency.)

On June 20, 2014, Obama created a task force to determine what's killing the bees and other pollinators. He directed the team to come up with a strategy to reverse the trend. He also put $50 million in the FY 2015 budget to address this problem. (Source: Robert Longley, “Obama Orders Save the Bees Initiative,” June 26, 2014.) 

Causes of Colony Collapse

Colony collapse disorder was recognized as a serious threat in 2006. Scientists suspected viruses, pesticides and fungicides made the bees vulnerable to the mites.

In January 2013, the European Food Safety Authority reported that three neonicotinoid class insecticides weakened the bees' immune system. These chemicals are clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam. The bees pick up the pesticides through dust and residue on nectar and pollen. They bring the poison back to the hive. That weakens their immune system. As a result, they are more susceptible to the parasites. 

These insecticides are used in America's corn crop. That's despite protests from Beyond Pesticides, the Pesticide Action Network North America, and the Center for Food Safety. These groups argued for years that the pesticides are responsible for bee colony collapse. They also negatively impact many birds and other wildlife. (Source: "Europes' Top Food Safety Agency Names Three Suspects,"  Food Safety News, January 2013.)

The bees don't die in their hives. Instead, they fly off to die alone. That makes it difficult to collect enough bee carcasses to study. But researchers at the University of Maryland found conclusive evidence. It fed pollen filled with fungicides and insecticides to healthy bees. They became more susceptible to the Nosema ceranae parasite. (Source: " Honey Bees in Trouble. Blame Farm Chemicals Study Says," Blame Farm Chemicals Study Says." NBC News, July 24, 2013.)

Beekeepers are fighting back by breeding more bees. They divide the hives in the spring and summer, forcing the bees to create more queens. That's only a stopgap measure. Usage of wild bumblebees might also help. (Source: Bloomberg Businessweek, March 28, 2011.)