The End of Honey? Not So Fast
The annual report for honeybee losses came out this week, and the news was not good: More than 40 percent of bees in managed colonies died between April 2014 and April 2015, one of the highest annual losses ever recorded, according to a federal survey.
To give the news a consumer angle, The Washington Post ran a story Thursday on how honey production would be affected by the mass die-off—likely the result of a combination of factors including mites, chemicals including pesticides used in agriculture, diet, climate, and poor hive management. The headline proclaimed an “uncertain future” for the sweet stuff.
In addition to suffering from high rates of bee deaths in recent years—and the apocalyptic-seeming instances of entire bee colonies simply disappearing in a mysterious phenomenon called colony collapse disorder—the U.S. “has gone from producing more than half of all the honey it consumes to importing the vast majority,” Wonkblog’s Roberto Ferdman wrote.
So if more bees are dying and imports are on the rise, the end of American honey is nigh, right?
Not even close. If you look closely, there’s a quirk in the die-off statistics that goes a long way toward explaining our strange, vital relationship with honeybees: Despite the huge number of bee deaths, the overall population barely changed. And sure, the amount of honey the U.S. imported—365 million pounds—rose 8.2 percent. But domestic honey production in 2014 was the highest it had been in a decade: 178 million pounds, up 19 percent over the prior year, according to the USDA Economic Research Service.
More than 50 percent of all honey used goes into food products—the honey bear we squeeze over our tea is less the norm these days than, say, bread sweetened with honey. A 2014 report from the National Honey Board estimates that much of the imported honey ends up in such products. “Given the significant decline in domestic production [over the previous year] and growth in manufacturing use of honey, it must be that an increasing share of the honey for ingredients comes from imports,” the report says.
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The Post softens its dire “end of honey” tone about halfway through the article, quoting Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an etymologist who helps conduct the annual honeybee survey. He told the Post, “It’s really important to understand that the actual number of bee colonies…has remained constant.”
So neither honeybees, nor the honey they make, are going away. Rather, the question is what will have to be done—from managing hives to managing habitat—to keep the populations up.
You need not look further than nearly 1 million acres of almond orchards in California, which require some 1.6 million bee colonies trucked in from around the country to pollinate, to see that bees need more than endless stretches of flowers to not only get enough to eat and be healthy but to produce honey.
Most almond honey is sold to bakers or for other food production purposes, as it’s said not to taste all that great. But for some beekeepers, pollinating an almond orchard—a service that’s fast becoming beekeepers’ primary income source—means having to provide their hives with additional food rather than harvesting their honey. After essentially bingeing on almond pollen and nectar for a few weeks, bees need to detox on the kind of healthy, varied diet of the numerous types of flowers that they would encounter in a natural environment.
But unlike honey and honeybees, such habitats—diverse, and free of pesticides and other agricultural chemicals—are on the decline. Unless we want to see a more serious “end of honey” story in the coming years, that’s going to need to change.