Beep­oca­lypse? No. In bee-mar­ket vic­tory, colonies adapted to change.

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - BY CHRISTO­PHER IN­GRA­HAM christo­pher.in­gra­ham@wash­post.com

You’ve heard the news about hon­ey­bees. “Beep­oca­lypse,” they’ve called it. Beemaged­don. Amer­ica’s hon­ey­bees are dy­ing, putting honey pro­duc­tion and $15 bil­lion worth of pol­li­nated food crops in jeop­ardy.

Ear­lier this year, the White House even put forth the first “Na­tional Strat­egy to Pro­mote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pol­li­na­tors.”

The trou­ble all be­gan in 2006 or so, when bee­keep­ers first be­gan notic­ing mys­te­ri­ous die­offs. It was soon chris­tened “Colony Col­lapse Dis­or­der” and has been re­spon­si­ble for the loss of 20 to 40 per­cent of man­aged hon­ey­bee colonies each win­ter over the past decade.

The math says that if you lose 30 per­cent of your colonies ev­ery year for a fewyears, you rapidly end up with close to zero. But the num­ber of hon­ey­bee colonies has ac­tu­ally risen since 2006, from 2.4 mil­lion to 2.7 mil­lion in 2014, ac­cord­ing to the USDA. The 2014 num­bers show that the num­ber of com­mer­cial honey-pro­duc­ing colonies man­aged by bee­keep­ers is the high­est it’s been in 20 years.

So if CCD is wip­ing out close to a third of all hon­ey­bee colonies a year, how are their num­bers ris­ing? One word: Bee­keep­ers.

A 2012 work­ing pa­per by Ran­dal R. Tucker and Wal­ter N. Thur­man, a pair of agri­cul­tural econ­o­mists, ex­plains that sea­sonal die-offs have al­ways been a part of bee­keep­ing: They re­port that be­fore CCD, Amer­i­can bee­keep­ers would typ­i­cally lose 14 per­cent of their colonies a year, on av­er­age.

So bee­keep­ers have de­vised two ways to re­plen­ish their stock. The first in­volves split­ting one healthy colony in two: put half the bees into a new bee­hive, or­der them a new queen online (re­tail price: $25 or so), and voila. Or you can buy a bunch of bees to re­place the ones you lost. Three pounds of “pack­aged” bees, plus a queen, costs about $100.

Bee­keep­ers have been do­ing this sort of thing since the ad­vent of com­mer­cial bee­keep­ing. The price of some of that ex­tra work will be passed onto the con­sumer: The av­er­age re­tail price of honey has roughly dou­bled since 2006.

Still, it’s no “beep­oca­lypse.” In fact, Tucker and Thur­man call this a vic­tory for the free mar­ket: “Not only was there not a fail­ure of bee-re­lated mar­kets,” they con­clude, “but they adapted quickly and ef­fec­tively to the changes in­duced by the ap­pear­ance of Colony Col­lapse Dis­or­der.”

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