Tuesday Talks With Dr. Patterson

November 18, 2014


This year, Congress and the President of the United States have turned their attention to one important agricultural input – bees. Bees and the services of commercial beekeepers, who move hives around agricultural production areas, contribute to the successful production of at least 100 agricultural crops through their pollination activities. It is estimated that this contribution is worth $15 billion annually in the United States and over $100 billion globally (Wilson-Rich). However, U.S. beekeepers have been afflicted with the so-called colony collapse disorder (CCD), where the worker bees in a hive simply disappear. This has resulted in the number of viable hives declining by as much as 30 percent per year over the last few years. Given the importance of honey bees to commercial agriculture, this has raised new concerns or certainly has created a buzz.

Our current experience with colony collapse disorder is traced to the winter of 2007, when U.S. beekeepers began finding their hives nearly empty of all worker bees. Losing bees over the winter is common and typically results in losses in hive numbers of about five to ten percent per year. During the winter of 2007, nearly 30 percent of the hives were lost; during the winter of 2014, hive numbers only dropped by 24 percent, giving some optimism that the current colony collapse may be subsiding (Wilson-Rich). These episodic events of hive die offs have been recorded in the past. Irish beekeepers recorded these events in 950, 992, and 1443. Beekeepers in Utah and England reported a similar event in 1903 (Haberman). European beekeepers are also currently experiencing colony collapses. British beekeepers have called their event the Mary Celeste Syndrome in reference to the merchant ship that left New York in 1872 to be found adrift four weeks later 400 miles east of the Azores with no crew members aboard and all supplies and cargo intact (Haberman).

There is an important relationship between beekeepers and agricultural producers of certain crops, primarily fruits, vegetables, and tree nuts. Commercial pollination services, where beekeepers move their hives into certain production areas, began in the 1950s. There are certain crops that are entirely dependent on pollination services for successful production. Almond trees cannot self-pollinate nor can wind effectively distribute the pollen. Furthermore, the honey from bees foraging on almonds is too bitter to consume. In this case, almond producers pay beekeepers for pollination services. In other cases, beekeepers may pay for access to certain crops, since it yields very desirable honey. Beekeepers will determine the density of hives in a region, based on whether the objective is honey production (low density) or pollination services (high density). Thus, the relationship between honey production and pollination services should be thought of substitute activities, rather than complementary activities (Muth and Thurman). It should be recognized that honey bees are not the only pollinators and many crops benefit from other wild pollinators (butterflies, wild bees, other insects, birds, bats). Because of the complexity of the relationship between beekeepers and crop producers, some economists have questioned estimates like the $15 billion commercial value given above (Muth and Thurman). Indeed, Muth and Thurman give a nice illustration on how these types of estimates often rely on the average value of an input, rather than the marginal value that economists prefer. Nonetheless, the contributions of bees in agriculture is still very important.

Numerous explanations for CCD have been proffered–bee nutrition, loss of forage lands, parasites, pathogens, lack of genetic diversity, and exposure to pesticides. Some have even blamed cell phone towers, claiming that their signals are disorienting bees. Others have argued that the bees are overworked and stressed. At present, scientists are still unsure of the cause of CCD. However, two factors have risen to the forefront as explanations. One, the Varroa destructor mite has been described as a significant factor compromising the health of bee hives. This invasive parasitic mite, first introduced in the United States in the 1990s, burrows into the bee and compromises its immune system (Haberman). Second, the class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids has also been suspected to be contributing to colony collapse. Neonics, as they are called, are chemically similar to nicotine and are systemic pesticides, meaning that once applied, they circulate through the plant including into the flower. Some argue that the neonics are disorienting or killing the bees. Recently, the European Union placed a two-year ban on the use of neonics. France tried a similar ban in 1999 and found that this did not reduce the incidence or rate of its colony collapse (Haberman).

U.S. policymakers have responded to growing concerns over CCD. In June, at the end of National Pollinator Week (June 16-22), President Obama signed a Presidential Memorandum establishing a Pollinator Health Task Force. The taskforce is expected to deliver by the end of the year a National Pollinator Health Strategy, including recommendations on research, public education, and improvement in habitat. Each state and tribal community are also expected to develop a pollinator protection plan (Obama). In September, Congressman Austin Scott introduced H.R. 5447, which would amend the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) to expedite the review of products intended to improve pollinator health, such as control agents for the Vorroa mite (Gonzalez). In October, the USDA announced more than $4 million in technical and financial assistance to farmers in the Midwest (Michigan, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wisconsin) to improve pollinator health. The program will be administered through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) and will focus on improvements in habitat. This program augments a successful $3 million pilot program established earlier during 2014 (AgriPulse 2014a). Also in October, the first report from Growing Matters, a coalition of life science companies (Bayer CropScience, Syngenta, and Valent U.S.A.), on the economic and societal benefits of neonicotinoids was released. This coalition argues that the loss of neonics would result in higher use of older chemical compounds at a five pound to one pound substitution rate (AgriPulse 2014b). In June of 2013, Representatives Earl Blumenauer and John Conyers introduced H.R. 2692, which directs the Environmental Protection Agency to suspend the use of all pesticides, including neonics, that are believed to affect pollinator health. This bill and H.R. 5447 remain in committee and likely will not be acted on during this session of Congress.

The coming winter will show us whether CCD is subsiding. Still, more research is needed on the factors influencing pollinator health. Regardless of how their economic value is estimated, honey bees and other pollinators are vital to agricultural production. Proposed policies on regulating pesticides and public investments in pollinator health and habitat would benefit from more research.



AgriPulse. “USDA to Provide $4 Million for Honey Bee Habitat.” AgriPulse, October 29, 2014a. (Accessed: November 16, 2014). http://www.agri-pulse.com/USDA-provide-4-million-honey-bee-habitat-10292014.asp

AgriPulse. “Ag Coalition Issues Reports Documenting the Benefits of Neonics.” AgriPulse, October 29, 2014b. (Accessed: November 16, 2014). http://www.agri-pulse.com/ag-coalition-issues-studies-benefits-neonics-10292014.asp

Gonzalez, S. “New Legislation Would Speed Up Approval of Products that Control Bee Pests.” AgriPulse, September 15, 2014. (Accessed: November 16, 2014). http://www.agri-pulse.com/New-legislation-would-speed-up-approval-of-products-that-control-bee-pests-09152014.asp

Haberman, C. “The Head-Scratching Case of the Vanishing Bees.” New York Times, September 28, 2014. (Accessed: November 16, 2014). http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/29/us/the-head-scratching-case-of-the-vanishing-bees.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Aw

Muth, M.K. and W.N. Thurman. “Why Support the Price of Honey?” Choices, Second Quarter, 1995.

Obama, B. Presidential Memorandum – Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators. The White House, June 20, 2014. http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/06/20/presidential-memorandum-creating-federal-strategy-promote-health-honey-b

Wilson-Rich, N. “Are Bees Back Up on Their Knees?” New York Times, September 24, 2014. (Accessed: November 16, 2016). http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/25/opinion/colony-collapse-are-bees-back-up-on-their-knees.html?module=Search&mabReward=relbias%3Aw&_r=0


Dr. Paul Patterson is associate dean for instruction for the College of Agriculture and Professor of Agricultural Economics.