The Bee Keeper

Hope You Like Beets, Because The Bee Crisis Could Soon Be Hitting the U.S. Food Supply

The effects of colony collapse disorder have been masked by imported bees, but a perfect storm is brewing, and it will leave no grocery store unscathed.

Recently we've explored several seemingly unrelated subjects.

bee on flower

* For the last several years, 30% or more of the commercial honey bee colonies in the U.S. have perished each winter due to starvation, disease and pesticides.

* During the summer, that many and more perish for the same reasons, but they are partially replaced by beekeepers by dividing their remaining colonies... but colonies are vanishing so fast that beekeepers can't keep up.

* We have to import thousands of Australian honey bee colonies each spring because the the U.S. can't produce enough bees to replace those we lose each winter, but even with imports, we still aren't staying even.

* The USDA thinks there might be problems with Australian bees and, finally, it is investigating. But USDA keeps changing the importation rules, so it seems that no matter what, Australian bees can keep coming.

* Somebody in Congress is finally upset about contaminated, cheap, illegal Chinese honey being smuggled, sneaked into this country, putting U.S. beekeepers out of business, and feeding you something you weren't expecting in your Honey Nut Cheerios.

* Farm land in the U.S. continues to disappear at just over 3% every 10 years. That's about 45,000 square miles (more than the state of Ohio) every 10 years, or 2.9 million acres every year, or, more to the point, 7,863 acres every single day, which was enough to feed almost 800 colonies of honey bees.

* In that same decade, the U.S. has lost 200,000 colonies that have not been replaced even with Australian bees or splits from our own bees. That's 20,000 a year that vanish. More importantly, that's 55 honey bee colonies that vanish, every single day.

* In the same time frame, 37 million new people have come to share what's left of the land. That's 10,000 new people, every single day.

* It takes about 10 acres of land, with each acre in bloom for about a month, to feed a single honey bee colony.

* After several years of poor weather, 2009 was the worst honey crop in the U.S., ever.

When you tie all these somewhat connected pieces together you come up with an unsettling picture.

There are not enough honey bee colonies in this country to pollinate the food we need pollinated because of the continuing overwhelming losses during both spring and summer. To meet the increasing demand we import colonies from Australia. Without them, fruit, nut and vegetable growers in parts of the country will have to change what they grow because they couldn't grow what they are growing now.

The colonies we have do not have enough good forage available to thrive, and what land they have is disappearing at a rapid rate. The millions of acres of corn and soybeans and wheat and oats and barley and grassland pasture do not a honey bee restaurant make. They need a continuous diversity of flowers available for a healthy, balanced diet, and, to produce a honey crop... even enough honey for themselves, let alone a surplus for beekeepers to harvest. And with the crackdown demanded by Congress on honey being brought into the U.S. illegally there's a good chance there won't be enough honey produced, and not enough available to import to meet the needs of U.S. consumers.

And honey consumption continues to climb every year -- not per capita consumption, but overall use. Every person in the U.S. consumes right about a pound of honey every year, year in and year out. That comes to about 310 million pounds needed next year, and in a good year we'll produce just 200 million pounds.

This country has never had a honey shortage because there have always been imports available to take up the slack. And we've never had a food shortage because we've always had imports to take up the slack. And we've never had a honey bee shortage because we've had imports as long as we've needed them. But if it all falls apart again this winter…imports of bees get banned, honey bee populations in this country crash again, imported honey gets the scrutiny it needs and much of it is no longer allowed and the illegal stuff is confiscated, and farmers change cropping plans because honey bees aren't available to pollinate…you know what happens?

You're local farm market starts to have bare stalls every weekend, and the cost of joining a CSA goes up next spring, and the cost of honey goes through the roof. Right now the U.S. average, that's average, price for a one-pound jar of honey is right about $5, but that's including the imported stuff. Take that off the market and the price goes to $8 a pound overnight., and $10 in another year.

What else happens? Without Australian bees the price for farmers to rent a colony of honey bees goes from $150 to $200 overnight. Maybe more. But here's what's more important. Almonds, which are expanding this year will require 20,000 more colonies or so, and they pay top dollar: $200 an acre, as I just mentioned. But your local apple grower, blueberry grower and regular small vegetable grower can't come close to that price. They can pay maybe $75 at most, but usually closer to $35 or $40. So far. That, too will change. A conservative estimate is prices will start at $50. But what's worse is that these growers, for the most part, don't need thousands of colonies, or even hundreds. Or even 50. They need 10, or a dozen. And, like everything else, bulk prices are cheaper. And undoubtedly the crops that he grows will reflect that change. More corn, less squash, more beans, fewer strawberries. More beets, fewer peppers. But beets are good for you, don't you know?

Colony Collapse Disorder has not gone away but so far we have been able to hide the problems it is causing. Slowly the cover is coming off and the real threat to our food supply is at hand. I hope you like soybeans, and corn and wheat, and rice. Find some recipes. Quick.

bee on flower
Kim Flottum

Kim Flottum

Kim Flottum is the editor of Bee Culture magazine.
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Bee Culture: The magazine of American beekeeping.
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