Protecting Our Environment

Are Honey Bees Really Dying out?

We’ve all seen the “Bees Are Dying!” memes pop up in social media feeds. It’s an unsettling thought! Honey bees are incredibly important to providing some of your favorite foods, including almonds, apples, strawberries, blueberries and many more. Understandably, you’re concerned. But, is there a need to be? Are bees actually dying out? Let’s look at the facts.

The Ins and Outs of Honey Bee Populations

Honey bees are a part of the natural world around us, particularly in parts of Africa and Asia, but for most of the world, and especially in the U.S. and across Europe, the honey bees we see are, in fact, managed by beekeepers, very much like farmers manage pigs, sheep and cattle.

Honey bee populations can fluctuate from year to year, mainly due to a combination of factors that can impact a colony’s health. If colony populations in a given area are slightly lower this year than the previous year, that doesn’t necessarily mean the population is dying off. To understand the population dynamics, we need to look at trends over time and think about the social and economic factors that may play a part — like whether the number of beekeepers has gone down, for instance. Fewer beekeepers mean less colonies.

So, what does the honey bee population look like over the past ten years? We’re glad you asked!

illustration for each step in the process

As you can see, the number of honey bee colonies in the U.S. is actually stable or slightly increasing over the last decade, according to FAO data. Globally, the news is even better — honey bee colonies have increased by more than 65 percent since the 1960s and across the European Union the number has been pretty stable too, for the last 12 years.

The Honey Bee Year

You might have also seen headlines to the tune of “Beekeeper Loses 40 Percent of Colonies.” While this headline may be correct, it does not refer to honey bees dying out. Instead, it indicates that honey bees are facing some challenges during the lead into winter. In the northern hemisphere, winter can be a time of heavy colony losses for beekeepers, especially if the colony is not managed well and weakened before the winter period due to a spread of disease or through a lack of food. The weather can also wreak havoc. Long periods of too hot or too cold temperatures can be very destructive for hives that are already under stress.

This, along with Varroa mite infestations and other threats, can result in the loss of entire colonies. Generally, beekeepers accept that there will be some losses of colonies each year. In Europe this is about 15 percent, and in the U.S., the current norm is 20.6 percent. However, beekeepers can build up their hive numbers following these instances by splitting colonies into two groups in the springtime (which also prevents swarming).

Throughout the summer, the number of bees in each colony increases again to make a strong, healthy colony. How? Well, the queen is constantly laying eggs (up to 2,000 per day!) in the height of the season and the average lifespan of a worker bee during the summer is about six weeks. This means that, in a colony of some 50,000 bees, a few thousand honey bees may die each day of natural causes but this is offset in the colony as some 2,000 worker bees hatch each day.

Most surveys of honey bee colonies track losses, but they don’t always report the gains in colony numbers that take place over the spring and summer. (It’s sort of like basing your financial situation only on your bank withdrawals, but not what you’ve deposited.) What does this all mean? Think of it this way: If a beekeeper experiences a loss of 40 percent of his or her colonies, that’s not good. However, the beekeeper can replace them the following year, albeit at a financial cost. So, just talking about colony losses isn’t really indicative of overall honey bee health.

Honey Bee Health

Beekeepers have a key role to play as they can directly influence the health of their bees by offering the main things a colony needs to survive — that’s food, shelter and a safe environment. Without the help of a beekeeper, honey bee colonies would hardly be able to survive in Europe or the U.S. today. If left unattended, a colony would die within two to three years, due to the impact of Varroa mite infestation

What factors affect the health of honey bee colonies? Here are the key threats:

So, to answer the original question: No, honey bee colonies aren’t moving towards extinction (phew) — in fact they’re increasing in numbers around the world (double phew). But honey bees still face many challenges around the world. Because of this, it is important to study and monitor health concerns, so we can be sure to protect our buzzing pollinator buddies.

Thankfully, organizations such as Project Apis m. and others worldwide are working on treatments and other ways to help honey bee populations. Through our Bee Care Science Program, we are supporting many other projects around the world, including Healthy Hives 2020 LATAM.

In 2015, Bayer launched Healthy Hives 2020 USA with a goal of funding research that is focused on finding tangible solutions to many of the challenges honey bees face by the year 2020. With less than two years to go, we can’t wait to share the results of these independent bee researchers! Learn more about the Bayer Bee Care Program and our efforts to protect honey bees here.

And remember, you don’t need a science degree to help support pollinators. There’s plenty you can do right from home! Here’s how you can get started.