Saving American honey production—and the beekeeping industry—will require a sea change in agricultural practices.
Saving American honey production—and the beekeeping industry—will require a sea change in agricultural practices.
May 9, 2022
Richard Coy is a fourth-generation beekeeper. For decades, he moved his bees around the country to provide pollination services and make honey in multiple states, returning to a home base in Arkansas, where they produced “soybean honey.”
“We called it [that] because that was basically the only thing growing in the area,” he said. “But the bees were actually collecting honey off all of the wild plants along the edges of the soybean fields.”
Bees need diverse plant life to forage for nectar, and an increasing percentage of land is being developed and planted with monocrops.
Then, in 2017, Coy’s honey production fell off a cliff and never bounced back. In 2019, he packed up the whole operation and moved it to Mississippi to get away from the farming practices he believes are transforming the Midwest’s landscape into an inhospitable environment for honey production. Today, his bees collect nectar on the edges of hillsides instead of commodity crop fields, but the area can only support 3,000 hives, compared to the 10,000 he used to keep in Arkansas. “There’s no other place that is productive enough to expand to,” he said. “Everybody’s battling for the same territory, because there’s not that much left.”
Bees need diverse plant life to forage for nectar, and an increasing percentage of land is being developed and planted with monocrops. As a result, many are starving. And the lack of nutritious forage is just one of several overlapping, interconnected factors that currently threaten the health of America’s commercial honey industry. Climate change, pesticide use, and price competition from cheap and often fraudulent honey imports are also important factors.
In March, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that while the number of honey bee colonies in the country declined by just 0.4 percent in 2021 compared to 2020, overall honey production dropped by 126 million pounds, the result of a 14 percent drop in honey yield per colony. In other words, the same number of bees produced significantly less honey. At the same time, bees are dying in greater numbers: Reported rates of colony loss (a measure of annual mortality) between April 2020 and April 2021 were the second-highest loss rates recorded since they were first tracked in 2006. During that one year, beekeepers lost 45.5 percent of their colonies.
The statistics “are telling the same story but from different angles,” said Nathalie Steinhaeuer, who is based out of the department of entomology at the University of Maryland and is the research coordinator for the Bee Informed Partnership (BIP), a national research collaborative that tracks colony loss and other metrics related to bee health. Determining the exact arc of that story is not easy, but it’s crucial to the future of American honey, bees, and the crops that depend on honey bees for pollination.
This month, researchers published results from the largest global assessment of insect declines to date, which found that the combined impacts of climate change and intensive agricultural land use were associated with a 50 percent reduction in insect abundance. A 2019 scientific review estimated that a whopping 40 percent of insect species around the globe, which are critical to pollination and countless other ecosystem functions, face the threat of extinction within the next few decades, and roughly 46 percent of all bee species are in decline.
Honey bees face the same threats, but because beekeepers manage their colonies and rebuild the ones they’ve lost each year, the overall population has stayed relatively stable in the U.S. in recent years. For some, however, maintaining that stability has become an annual uphill battle.
Bret Adee once ran the country’s largest beekeeping operation. From about 90,000 hives in 2017, he’s down to 72,000, and he’s not sure if the title still applies. “We’ve had such a hard time keeping our bees alive,” he said. “When you have high mortality, there’s this idea that hives will recover. It’s like, ‘Well, yeah, if you don’t go broke first.’”
Steinhaeuer said that BIP has been trying to establish what a baseline rate of “normal” colony loss might be, but without hard data from before 2006, it’s tricky to know exactly how things have changed.
“You always wish you had done the [data collection] 10 years earlier, because when we started, beekeepers were already complaining that the mortality rate was higher than what they remembered,” she said.
While last year’s colony loss rate was up quite a bit, overall the rates have risen at unpredictable intervals. They’ve gone up and down year to year but essentially hovered around the 40 percent average. One thing that has risen year over year is what beekeepers consider “an acceptable level of loss,” says Steinhaeuer. In other words, they have come to expect losing close to half their colonies.
And how much honey each colony produces has been clearly decreasing steadily over time. In the ‘90s and early 2000s, yield per colony was often upwards of 70 pounds. Since 2015, yield rates have remained under 60 pounds, and 2021 was the first time in 35 years it dipped below 50 pounds per hive. And the two issues are intertwined: If beekeepers must split and rebuild hives to replace lost bees, it’s likely they’ll produce less honey as the colonies get back on track.
Experts disagree on which of the many factors impacting honey bee health are most important. Steinhaeuer ranks pests and parasites like the varroa mite first, and poor nutrition second. But poor nutrition is the perfect example of how complicated and intertwined the factors are, since adequate forage for bees is disappearing for several reasons.
When Steinhaeuer asked her team of field specialists who work with commercial beekeepers all over the country why they thought honey production decreased so much in 2021, “their reaction was that it’s no surprise, because 2021 was extremely dry,” she said. Indeed, production yield dropped most significantly—more than 20 percent—in North and South Dakota, where the largest proportion of commercial honey bees are kept in the summer and which have been struck by a historic drought.
Coy said his honey production took a nosedive in 2017 immediately after his farmer neighbors in Arkansas began spraying their crops with dicamba, an herbicide that has wreaked havoc on ecosystems and farm communities due to its propensity to drift.
Honey yield was also down 23 percent in California, where a multiyear drought is expected to get even worse this year. In that state, hotter, drier conditions as a result of climate change have already led to a decline in wildflower species, which bees rely on. (A U.K. study published in April found climate change would likely cause a 40 percent reduction in wildflower abundance and that hotter temperatures would cause wildflowers to produce less nectar in Northern Europe.)
“You can’t discount that,” Adee said of climate-induced drought impacts. “But it’s not the only thing. The landscape and the viability of the plants has changed so much because of [overapplication of] herbicides and fungicides.”
Coy said his honey production took a nosedive in 2017 immediately after his farmer neighbors in Arkansas began spraying their crops with dicamba, an herbicide that has wreaked havoc on ecosystems and farm communities due to its propensity to drift. “The difference with dicamba [compared to other pesticides] is you can’t get away from it,” he said.
Reports from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and several nonprofits have documented how dicamba has drifted off fields and caused widespread damage to non-agricultural plants and trees. One 2016 study found dicamba drift delayed and reduced flowering on alfalfa and perennial shrub plants and that pollinators visited plants affected by dicamba drift less often.
While herbicides may reduce the number and variety of plants that provide nutrition for bees, insecticides can more directly threaten their health. A 2020 Penn State study found that over the previous 20 years, the toxic load bees are exposed to when they ingest pollen or nectar increased ninefold across the country. In Midwest states, it rose 121-fold, and in Great Plains states including North and South Dakota, 53-fold. Increases in toxicity were driven primarily by the expansion of neonicotinoid use across commodity cropland.
And while insecticide exposure doesn’t usually kill bees on contact, researchers who have measured pesticide residues in pollen have found that its effects on colonies are more complicated and can interact with other stressors. In a 2021 study, the authors wrote that while the evidence collected did not point to direct poisoning as a major cause of colony loss, it did show that colonies can be negatively impacted by continuous exposure to low doses of pesticides, especially when that exposure interacts with other threats like diseases and inadequate nutrition.
Entrepreneur Douglas Raggio is well aware of how often honey bees encounter pesticides in the environment. Four years ago, Raggio was planning to sell edible honeycomb as a snack food, and he was looking for a source.
“There was not a single commercial beekeeper that would sell us the comb, because they are very aware of the bioaccumulation of pesticides in the wax,” he said. And trying to make sense of the world of organic honey didn’t help. While honey bearing the USDA organic seal is sold in the U.S., the certification is controversial. Organic standards for honey last proposed in 2010 still have not been finalized by the USDA. Honey bearing the seal is generally imported and its certification is based on international organic equivalency agreements. Even if the standards were finalized, experts point out that it’s extremely difficult to find areas where you can raise bees and guarantee they won’t visit plants that have been sprayed by pesticides. The 2010 standard recommends a two-mile radius of organic forage.
Raggio turned his attention abroad and began working with a community of beekeepers in Turkey. But as he learned more about the global honey market, he started to realize that honey fraud represented a deep threat to honey bee colonies in the U.S—one that exacerbated physical threats to their health in complicated ways.
As Americans’ appetite for honey has increased over the past 20 years, cheap imports have flooded into the country. And the prices are artificially low partially because of rampant fraud in the industry. Some honey is diluted with other sugars and syrups; other honey is processed to remove contamination, in ways that also remove all of the beneficial compounds, too.
It’s nearly impossible for commercial beekeepers in the U.S. who are making pure honey to compete on price, so they’ve become dependent on income they make trucking their bees to California and other states to pollinate almond orchards and other crops. “If it wasn’t for pollination services, there would not be a beekeeping business in the United States,” Adee said. “It would be gone.”
But the job can be very hard on the bees. “You can lose a third of your colony in a day because they’re spraying when the bees are on the blooms,” said Chris Krantz, an East Coast beekeeper who now moves his hives between Maryland and Georgia. “I’ve left beehives in orchards before, and I’ve gone back to [find them] almost empty. It’s disappointing to spend an entire year or season making a colony strong enough that it can pollinate those blooms to get a payday, but then you’ve lost that colony.”
Krantz’s solution was to break out of the system altogether. He stopped doing pollination services for other farms and focused on the honey. He’s currently planting strawberry fields on his own land for his bees to pollinate. But he can only make the business work because he cut back his numbers and stopped competing on the wholesale honey market. He sells his H.T. Krantz honey directly to restaurants and customers at farmers’ markets for much higher prices. “We’ve just gotten out of that business,” he said. “We went humble.”
Now, Krantz’s bees are living longer and producing more honey, and he says the landscape is able to support his operation’s smaller scale. While Western Maryland has plenty of cropland, it’s far from a sea of unbroken commodity fields, and his bees have no trouble collecting nectar from black locust trees, raspberry brambles, and wildflowers nearby.
For beekeepers in places where that’s not the case, Raggio is hoping for a regenerative solution, especially since a true organic standard for honey does not yet exist in the U.S. “The whole catalyst [for my business] is to take honeycomb and reestablish proper pricing to pay a premium to beekeepers globally and domestically,” he said. “Part of that is breaking the dependence of beekeepers’ livelihoods on pollination services.” Another part is figuring out where and how U.S. beekeepers can keep their bees healthy, access adequate forage, and avoid pesticide exposure, all within a changing climate.
In July 2021, Raggio’s company, Pass the Honey, launched the “Regenerative Honeycomb Initiative,” which will study what it takes to produce honey within healthy ecosystems in the U.S. The project has currently secured a million acres of land—mainly in forests—in different regions around the country, where they believe bees can be raised in “regenerative” environments.
Researchers will be studying metrics like production and colony loss there, testing the honey and honeycomb, and tracking impacts on native bees and the overall ecosystems.
At the same time, the company created an internal definition of regenerative beekeeping, commissioned a white paper on what regenerative apiculture might look like, and started a Regenerative Apiculture Working Group to bring actors throughout the food system together on the issue.
Raggio has big ideas about the best beekeeping standards, maintaining ecologically diverse forage zones, and testing for adulteration and pesticide contamination. But for beekeepers like Coy to simply find a place where their bees can survive and produce enough honey, changes will have to happen throughout the larger agricultural system. “Beekeepers are being pushed to the extreme southern part of the United States for the winter to rebuild their numbers and then taking them as far north as the Canadian border to get to areas where there’s not as much monoculture of commodity crops,” Coy said.
Regenerative farming practices that reduce pesticide use and build soil health and biodiversity back into the agricultural landscape, Adee said, would likely go a long way toward improving the overall landscape for bees. “It’s time to reevaluate how we’re doing things,” he said. “You can cheat nature for a while, but eventually you’ve got to pay a price.”
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