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Found in Translation
By: Jay Evans, USDA Beltsville Bee Lab
Waiting for Spring makes one hopeful and, simultaneously, a bit reflective on why we all keep at this, despite heavy Winter losses and expenses. This year, massive floods in California will wreak havoc with bees and beekeepers in holding yards and during the first commercial stop of the year in almond plantations. Most years the opposite is true; crippling droughts decrease yields from almonds and other crops, diminishing the agricultural benefits of bee pollination. Still, most of the time, bees and beekeepers get a break and honey bees and other pollinators provide a solid boost to the production of healthy foods. This essay is devoted to the bees and beekeepers whose actions improve food production and human welfare.
Our sister branch of USDA, the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), provides quarterly and annual views showing how honey bees impact humanity in the USA (https://www.nass.usda.gov/Surveys/Guide_to_NASS_Surveys/Bee_and_Honey/index.php). These reports document how the hard work to keep bees alive pays off in the farming economy and the food supply. Jennifer Bond and colleagues at the USDA’s Economic Research Service pulled data from NASS and other sources to generate a full view of the bee industry and its drivers in Honey Bees on the Move: From Pollination to Honey Production and Back (2021, https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/101476/err-290.pdf). This short book shows the challenges faced by beekeepers and the targets that keep them on their toes, highlighting that 80% of annual pollination income to beekeepers is derived from one early-season source (almond plantations, flooded or otherwise). Bees and their migratory keepers then disperse widely for additional pollination events and, weather and habitat permitting, the production of honey and wax. Overall, beekeepers receive $320 million in pollination fees for their efforts, and these efforts have a twenty-fold greater impact on U.S. crop production.
Pollination of crops not only provides an economic engine for growers and (some) beekeepers, but pollination by bees is literally saving lives. A recent global analysis generated values for pollination impacts on world crops by estimating decreased productivity when bees were limiting (Matthew Smith and colleagues, Pollinator deficits, food consumption, and consequences for human health: A modeling study, 2022, Environmental Health Perspectives, 130(12) 127003-1 https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP10947). By looking at peaks versus observed productivity across farmed regions, the authors estimate that inadequate pollination decreases yields for fruit and nut crops by 5%, on average. Similarly, vegetable yields are reduced by 3%. These estimates cover 60+ crops that supplement the diets of billions of people on all continents except Antarctica. Using conservative measures, the authors estimate that 500,000 people die annually due to decreased food yield or quality caused by missed pollination events by bees. This human toll differs across countries, with some populations suffering from all-out hunger and malnutrition while others (including the United States) are impacted more by shifts in diet tendencies away from more nutritious pollinated crops such as fruits and nuts. In a second recent paper (Pollination deficits and contributions of pollinators in apple production: A global meta-analysis, 2022, Journal of Applied Ecology, DOI: 10.1111/1365-2664.14279), Aruhan Olhnuud and colleagues present data for one critical worldwide fruit (the apple) and argue for even greater impacts of missed pollination on yields and seed set, in the range of 40% and 20%, respectively, much higher in some countries. Seed set for apples does not limit the industry overall, but fertilized seeds lead to a more attractive fruit shape. Honey bees, of course, are not the only insect pollinators of crops and both of these papers take great pains to account for the impacts of diverse pollinators. Nevertheless, in many counties, including ours, honey bees are the primary pollinators of crops, especially for larger farms.
While these studies focused on pollination impacts, honey bees provide a bounty for beekeepers small and large that was not accounted for in these two studies. The nutritious value of honey, and to a lesser extent pollen and brood, improves nutrition in many countries. Further, the receipts from honey and wax sales have a huge impact on human health worldwide and are arguably one of the most important sources of small-farm income in developing and industrialized incomes. Bernard Phiri and colleagues analyze yields from hive products worldwide in Uptrend in global managed honey bee colonies and production based on a six‑decade viewpoint, 1961–2017, 2022, Scientific Reports 12:21298, https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-022-25290-3). This fascinating synopsis highlights the losses and (mostly) gains of beekeeping across continents alongside the economic and population drivers behind those changes. As has been well documented, North America has seen a 30% decrease in honey bee colonies since 1961, while Europe (including Russia) has lost 12% of its colonies. South America, Africa, Australia and Asia have more than compensated for those losses, doubling or even quadrupling (Asia) managed hives in that time frame. Overall, the number of managed honey bee hives has doubled since 1961, matching a doubling in human population. All regions have perfected honey and wax harvesting, with honey yields even in North America surpassing those of prior years, despite lower colony numbers. This North American increase reflects heavier harvests in Mexico and Canada that outweigh decreased honey yields in the U.S. (https://www.visualcapitalist.com/cp/mapped-food-production-around-the-world/). Asian countries increased honey harvests by eight-fold over this time frame. It would be fascinating to estimate how greatly honey production impacts populations worldwide, not simply in local consumption but as an attainable and sustainable cash crop in developing and more industrialized countries. My guess is that the impacts of honey harvesting on lives improved and saved from premature death would rival that achieved by increased pollination from managed hives.
Whether you are keeping bees for family munchies, selling honey on a table or fully engaged in commercial pollination and the production of hive goods, you are playing a role in an essential partnership with one of the planet’s truly extraordinary animals. Thanks for doing that.