Is the honeybee disappearing and what will happen if they do?
"If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would
only have four years of life left. No more pollination, no more plants, no
more animals, no more man" - Albert Einstein.
In the winter of 2006/07 widespread panic erupted amongst beekeepers due to a mysterious
condition that was affecting their bees. Termed “colony collapse disorder” (CCD), it was strange
because whole hives full of bees were simply disappearing. Disruption of pollination systems
and declines of certain types of pollinators have been reported on every continent except
Antarctica. The overall picture is of a major pollination crisis. Life on planet earth depends on
the healthy functioning of the ecosystem. In the context of the regulation of climate there is
increasing awareness of the service we get from the ecosystem and what can go wrong if we
don’t look after it. Other such services of the ecosystem are less known, such as the
maintenance of a healthy biological interactions in the ecosystem such as interactions between
animals. The pollination of flowering plants is a prime example: Without pollination by animals,
most flowering plants would not reproduce sexually, and humans would lose food and other
Why are Bees Important?
Insects are responsible for pollinating around 85% of commercial crop types; of these 80% are
pollinated by bees. An estimated 1/3 of what we eat is pollinated by the honeybee. While wild
insects used to pollinate most plants, modern commercial crop production is increasingly
dependent on managed pollinators (e.g. the introduction of honeybee colonies into orchards or
fields to improve crop production), and less on wild insects living on the periphery of crop
fields. Other methods of pollination include other insects, birds, animals and wind).
Crops pollinated by bees include melons, squashes, carrots and onions. They tend to be
the high value crops. Most staples, such as corn and wheat, are wind pollinated so do
not rely on bees.
Honeybee pollination is essential for some crops (e.g. almonds, alfalfa, clover), while for
others it raises yield and quality (e.g. sunflower) or quantity of fruit production (e.g.
orchard fruit, tomatoes, melons).
Presence of bumblebees makes strawberry crop 20% heavier; Increases blueberry yield
by 32% and produce Apples that are 20% heavier and of a more uniform shape.
Bumblebees used on tomato, water melon, pumpkin, squash and pepper crops produce
30% more fruit.
What is Happening to Bee Populations?
Winter season (Oct-April) Loss of bee colonies in USA Proportion of lost bees due to CCD
2006/2007 31.8% 50%
2007/2008 35.8% 60%
2008/2009 28.6% 15%
Figure 1 – estimated bee losses in the USA based on data gathered by the Apiary Inspectors of America:
“While a decrease in total losses is encouraging, the rate of loss remains unsustainable as the average
operational loss increased from 31% in 2007/2008 to 34.2% in the 2008/2009 winter”
Figure 1 shows that not all of these losses were accompanied by the mysterious absence of
dead bees. High losses are very noticeable compared to average losses of 17%-20% per year
since the 1990’s in the USA.
Aside from CCD there are also losses that follow a less mysterious pattern. It can be difficult to
untangle as recent research into 3 bee colonies affected by CCD in Spain concluded a fungus
was to blame, when this fungus had been ruled out by other studies on different bee colonies
affected by CCD. Symptoms similar to those observed for CCD have been described in the
and heavy losses have been documented. It is unclear whether current losses are being caused
by the same factors or if new contributing factors are involved .
Causes of Bee Declines
According to Walter Haefeker, director of the German
Beekeepers Association, CCD has four possible causes: the
varroa mite, introduced from Asia; the widespread practice of
spraying wildflowers with herbicides; the practice of
monoculture (a single crop covering a large area); and the controversial yet growing use of
genetic engineering in agriculture.
A more inclusive list of possible causes is as follows
Modern farming practices – monocultures, loss of hedgerows and natural habitats for
bees and other pollinators mean we have come to rely on commercial honeybee
pollination for this sort of farming to continue. Conversely, if we were to revert to small
scale, ecologically well managed agriculture a natural pollinator population could be
sustained. Bees are fed an artificial diet of sugar.
Commercial bee breeding/genetics – bees bred for limited characteristics i.e.
Bee movements – bring diseases that local bees are not immune to (Varroa destructor,
or vampire mite, from Asia and embargo on Australian bee products)
Climate change – late flowering losing sync with bee foraging and hibernation patterns
Mobile phones/electromagnetic fields causing disorientation
It seems that there is no single factor but rather many potential contributing factors.
Economic value of the bee
Honeybees are the only commercially kept pollinator. Each year, an estimated 2 million bee
colonies are rented for U.S. crop pollination. Fees have risen from $35 per colony in 1970’s to
$75-$150 in 2008 due to increased almond production, increased price of honey and decreasing
number of available bees.
In the USA lorries of bees make a 5 month tour of the country
to visit over 3.5 million acres of orchards and fields. Bees
come to California to pollinate almonds from as far as
Massachusetts and Florida (approx. 2,500 miles east to west
coast so bees can often do a 5,500mile trip in a season), then
travel to Florida for citrus, then north for apples and cherries
as far as Maine for blueberries.
Monetary valuation dominates decisions to
invest in this, e.g. through habitat
conservation and policy making. The free
market as a value estimator does a poor job
in quantifying the monetary value of
ecosystem services. One way is to state the
production value of crops that grew thanks to
bees (see Table 1), thought to be $15billion in
the USA and $60 billion globally [9}. Another is
to estimate what it would cost us to do the
same job by hand. An additional
consideration is knock-on effects, for example
how would the production costs of alfalfa,
used as a cattle feed, affecs the production of beef, cheese and milk.
Dependence Proportion of Value Attributed Major
Crop Category on Insect Pollinators to Honey Beesa Producing
(ranked by share of Pollination That Are ($ millions) Statesb
honey bee Honey Bees
Alfalfa, hay & seed 100% 60% 4,654.2 CA, SD, ID, WI
Apples 100% 90% 1,352.3 WA, NY, MI, PA
Almonds 100% 100% 959.2 CA
Citrus 20% - 80% 10% - 90% 834.1 CA, FL, AZ, TX
Cotton (lint & seed) 20% 80% 857.7 TX, AR, GA, MS
Soybeans 10% 50% 824.5 IA, IL, MN, IN
Onions 100% 90% 661.7 TX, GA, CA, AZ
Broccoli 100% 90% 435.4 CA
Carrots 100% 90% 420.7 CA, TX
Sunflower 100% 90% 409.9 ND, SD
Cantaloupe/honeydew 80% 90% 350.9 CA, WI, MN,
Other fruits & nutsc 10% - 90% 10% - 90% 1,633.4 —
Other 70% - 100% 10% - 90% 1,099.2 —
Other field cropse 10% - 100% 20% - 90% 70.4 —
Total — — 14,564 —
Table 1 - Estimated Value of the Honey Bee to U.S. Crop Production, by Major Crop Category, 2000
It is difficult to say what will happen to the honeybee. Both wild insects and commercially
managed bees play a part. We can clearly say that the loss of the honeybee will mean the price
of crops reliant on them, such as almonds, apples, cotton and alfalfa, as well as secondary
products, such as beef, milk and cheese, will increase in price to potentially prohibitive levels. If
bees continue to disappear, beekeepers face bankruptcy, farmers lose crops and we can’t
afford the foods we like best and are recommended to eat more of. It is misguided to focus just
on the honeybee – they are an indicator for other insects and ecosystem health, the decline of
which has the potential to significantly change our lives. It is not widely believed that humans
would necessarily die out as Albert Einstein thought, as humans can still survive on the basics
like wheat and corn as these are wind-pollinated. But the economic importance of pollination,
and its value as an indicator of things being amiss that could cause much greater problems,
makes it clear that we should invest resources in trying to save the bee.
Buchmann SL, Nabhan GP. 1996. The Forgotten Pollinators. Washington, DC: Island.292 pp.
Eric C. Mussen, Extension Apiculturist. Don’t Underestimate the Value of Honey Bees; University of
M.H. Allsopp, W.J. de Lange, R. Veldtman. (2008) Valuing Insect Pollination Services with Cost of
Replacement. PLoS ONE 3(9): e3128, and citations therein.
C.A. Kearns, David W. Inouye, and Nickolas M. Waser. Endangered Mutualism: The Conservation of
Plant-Pollinator Interactions. Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics; Vol. 29: 83-112; Nov 1998
R. Huvermann. The added value of pollinators - Higher crop yields with interventions in crop
pollination; Koppert Biological Systems; March 2009; available at:
D. van Engelsdorp, J. Hayes, J. Pettis. Preliminary Results: A Survey of Honey Bee Colonies Losses in the
U.S. Between September 2008 and April 2009. Survey conducted by the Apiary Inspectors of America
(AIA) and USDA-ARS Beltsville Honey Bee Lab
R. Johnson. Recent Bee Colony Decline, Congress Research Service Report for Congress. 28 May 2008
Order Code RL33938
A. Benjamin, B. McCallum (2008). A world without Bees. London: Guardian Books
R. A. Morse and N. W. Calderone, The Value of Honey Bees as Pollinators of U.S. Crops in 2000, March
2000, Cornell University, available at: http://www.masterbeekeeper.org/pdf/pollination.pdf.
Other studies show a range of estimated values from $5.7 billion to $19.0 billion (see National Research
Council, Status of Pollinators in North America, 2006)
Compiled by CRS using values reported in R. A. Morse, and N.W. Calderone, The Value of Honey Bees
as Pollinators of U.S. Crops in 2000, March 2000, Cornell University; available at: