During the years I've been writing about bees, there has been a litany of supposed catastrophes widely trumpeted in the press, only to be revealed a short time later to be wholly fictitious. In no case have problems been connected to the state-of-the-art neonicotinoid insecticides that activists like to single out as the culprit.
The first instance was the famous "bee-pocalypse," the much-ballyhooed imminent extinction of the world's honeybee population that turned out to be an activist-generated media mirage. This was supposedly so serious and urgent (because, we were told, three-quarters of everything we eat is dependent on honeybees, and we were faced with worldwide famine) that in 2013, the European Union, acting on the "Precautionary Principle," instituted an immediate ban on neonics, with what have turned out to be catastrophic effects on European farmers.
Shortly thereafter, various analysts (this author included) actually looked at the data, something none of the media or, apparently, the EU officials who instituted the ban, had bothered to do. The claims of plummeting honeybee populations had simply been fabricated. In fact, honeybee populations have been rising on every habitable continent in the world since neonics came on the market in the mid-1990s.
But with bees as so much else these days, the facts often take a back seat to the agendas of special interest groups promoted on social media, so we continue to receive strident, dire warnings of one imminent catastrophe or another. Every year, we're warned ahead of time that the California almond crop may fail for lack of bees to pollinate the 800,000 acres of almond trees there — and every year, the growers produce a bumper crop. Local politicians, spurred by activists, periodically propose neonic bans to save fruit growers in the Northeast and Midwest, and the "if it bleeds, it leads" media dutifully report another looming pollination crisis — without ever noticing that fruit yields in those regions are stable or growing.
But in the long obsession about the woes of bees, no annual event has played a more important role than the Bee Informed Partnership's "bee loss" survey. Released every summer by University of Maryland entomologist Dennis vanEnglesdorp and his group, it theoretically reports on the percentage of honeybee hives lost over the preceding year and usually engenders a resurgence of apocalyptic headlines about honeybee declines and renewed calls for neonic bans.
The hysteria was less pronounced than usual when the report was released in June, probably because of the distraction of a genuine crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, and also because the winter loss rate was lower than previous years. If I were naïve or an optimist, I might hope that the media has finally caught on to the basic facts that have been well known to anyone following this issue over the last eight years: Winter losses, while higher than in the past due to the global spread of the Varroa parasite and other bee diseases, can be made up in the spring by splitting hives, something beekeepers have done from time immemorial.
Because I'm neither naive nor an optimist, however, I don't actually expect the media to learn about the subjects they're reporting on, so we should probably expect that next year, the BIP bee loss survey will again be seized on for sensational headlines about pollinator collapse. That's why, unfortunately, it's necessary to call out the bee loss numbers for what they are: a headline-grabbing gambit of no scientific value that is unworthy of the scientist who puts his name to it every year.
Dennis vanEngelsdorp is an otherwise serious and reputable scientist. A leading researcher on honeybee health, he coined the term "Colony Collapse Disorder" to describe the still-mysterious phenomenon that, as he has pointed out, has recurred periodically throughout history. The Bee Informed Partnership does valuable work exploring the many challenges facing beekeepers and improving bee husbandry in the United States, and the bee loss survey itself compiles valuable information on these issues by asking beekeepers if they've treated for Varroa (and if so, what products they used), what crops their bees foraged on and what supplements they were fed, the average age of their queens, and so forth. Beekeeping is a complex business, and learning the most effective ways to keep bees healthy is a worthy undertaking. However, the top-line "bee loss" numbers compiled by the survey are highly misleading, bordering on meaningless, making one wonder why vanEnglesdorp continues to promote them so actively in his yearly press releases.
To start with, the beekeeper survey that the Bee Informed Partnership uses to compile these numbers is purely voluntary, and most beekeepers don't bother to respond. The BIP estimates that this year's responses represented somewhat less than 10% of all beekeepers in the U.S. Of course, political pollsters work with much lower percentages to make election predictions and try to plumb the public's positions on various issues. But modern political polling, at least the reputable kind, is based on extensive historical and social research (e.g. voting patterns by geographic location, party affiliation, age, education, incomes, ethnic group, etc.) combined with sophisticated statistical analysis. Even so, different pollsters will often show dramatically divergent results, and not infrequently, they will all be wrong.
While the BIP says that it "polls" beekeepers, this is true in only the most primitive sense of the word, as in "to sample" or "count." The BIP makes no attempt to randomize its survey; it simply mails questionnaires out to all the beekeepers it can find and makes do with whatever responses come in. Almost certainly, those responses are heavily biased toward beekeepers who are having problems managing the health of their hives, seriously skewing the results toward higher loss rates.
That's an assumption, of course; one would have to do a real poll to find out, but it's a logical assumption. For one thing, beekeeper responses to the BIP are full of complaints about how complicated and time-consuming it is to fill out the survey, which generally lands in their mailboxes in the spring, beekeepers' busiest time of year. One suspects those who aren't having difficulties with their hives simply deposit the survey in the wastebasket.
The massive imbalance between responses from small "backyard" beekeepers and professional beekeeping operations tend to bear this out. To its credit, the BIP's website presents the actual numbers. Since its first survey in 2007, what the BIP calls "backyard" beekeepers, who manage anything from one to 50 hives, have accounted for more than 94% of all responses. Large commercial operations, which manage more than 500 hives and whose businesses live or die along with their bees, have accounted for somewhat less than 2%. The remaining almost 4% come from "sideline" beekeepers with 50-500 hives.
"Backyard" beekeepers, who are often disparagingly referred to in the trade as "hobby" beekeepers, are notorious for mismanagement of their hives, often completely neglecting to treat their bees for the pervasive diseases and parasite infestations to which they're prone (such as the bee-killing Varroa mite) that are the overwhelming source of bee health problems. Many consider these amateur hobby beekeepers themselves to be a significant threat to bee health, as their untreated hives serve as breeding grounds of disease and parasites, which then spread out to other honeybee hives and wild bee populations when they feed on the same flowers and pollen sources as the infected bees. Ironically, in spite of all the attention to the woes of bees, the problem of mismanaged hives has grown, as many new hobbyists with little knowledge of how difficult and time consuming it is to care for bees and little patience for the hard work involved have taken up the practice — in order to "help the bees." No wonder they're the ones who disproportionately respond to the BIP's survey.
Surveys such as the BIP's can provide a lot of useful information. What they can't do is pretend to be representative of anything except the small and biased sample of beekeepers who choose to respond. Given that, it might be more accurate for the BIP to headline the results of its survey something like "Mismanaged Hobbyist Beehives Report Losses of ...".
Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute. He was a research associate at the National Institutes of Health and the founding director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology,