In October 2016, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) declared seven species of yellow-faced bees to be “endangered,” and thus protected under the Endangered Species Act. For a variety of reasons—especially local habitat loss and colony collapse disorder—US bees have been under threat over the last decade. In addition to producing honey, honeybees are important pollinators; crops that need help from bees include almonds, coffee, apples, cocoa, cotton, and more.
The USFWS designation comes roughly a decade after the discovery of colony collapse disorder (CCD). CCD has devastated honeybee colonies across the US; not quite a disease, it prompts worker bees to leave their colonies, depriving queens of food. Although the number of honeybee colonies has increased from two decades ago, the yield per hive has declined. As a result of lower production, as well as the higher demand for honey, both the producer price and the retail price of honey in the US has more than doubled since 2005.
The damage to bees and bee colonies comes at a time when demand for honey in the US has soared. In addition to using honey as an alternative sweetener, Americans and Europeans have been beguiled by some of the recent health claims that involve honey, including that it’s a healthy sweetener and an energy booster. Premium honey varieties like manuka honey, which is produced in New Zealand and Australia, have seen their export values increase fourfold from a decade ago. Instead of being able to rely on domestic producers to meet demand, the US has seen its honey production decline for the last decade.
A large percentage of foods eaten by Americans rely on bee pollination, including apples, carrots, almonds, and avocados. Pollinators are also important for major commodities like cocoa, coffee, and cotton. Honeybees are a critical pollinator, and as a 2016 UN report warns, over 40 percent of pollinators, especially bees and butterflies, are facing extinction. The same report estimates that the annual value of global crops affected by pollinators is between $235 billion and $577 billion.
Farmers who depend on bee pollination have turned the process into a precise logistical science. Honeybees aren’t native to North America; instead, they were brought here to produce honey and to pollinate. Most live in managed colonies, or man-made hives, that can be transported around the country to whichever farm might need their services.
They’re especially useful for almonds, a lucrative crop mostly grown in California. Almonds have high pollination requirements, since nearly all of their flowers need to be cross-pollinated to produce a commercial crop. Each year, over 1.5 million hives—more than half of all cultivated beehives in the US—are trucked to California’s Central Valley to service almond orchards. Afterwards, they are trucked to plum, apple, cherry, and other orchards in the West Coast to pollinate, then across the country to farms in the Mid-Atlantic and New England.
In 2006, a farmer in Pennsylvania discovered that many bees in his hives disappeared. But looking around, he could not find many dead around him. Worker bees had started to leave their hives, leaving the queen and young bees behind. That farmer is credited with discovering CCD, which has damaged bee populations around the world, and especially the US.
Scientists have proposed many causes to explain the phenomenon, including the possibility of toxins, pesticides, mites, climate change, loss of habitat, and more. Although scientific opinion hasn’t quite settled, most researchers consider CCD to be a combination of these stressors, especially of pesticides, mites, and malnutrition. CCD, as well as higher than expected winter die-offs, have reduced US bee populations, prompting greater imports of bees and beehives.
According to the National Honey Board, the consumption of liquid honey grew by over 25 percent between 2012 and 2015. Americans have been consuming more honey, especially in teas as an alternative sweetener, and as a spread on top of toasts and biscuits. The National Honey Board also reports that Americans are consuming more honey crystals, which can be eaten on their own or as an ingredient, and as a spread on toasts, biscuits, and muffins.
Honey is also being added to more and more foods, including snack bars (which feature honey-related flavors typically combined with nuts) and breakfast cereals. Meanwhile, the American Mead Makers Association has declared that mead is one of the fastest-growing alcoholic beverages in the country by numbers of producers. The honey-based wine has become a fashionable drink, even though it’s not quite mainstream.
Honey benefits from being seen as a healthy and pure food. Nielsen reports that organic honey has seen the fastest growth; demand for organic honey has increased by double digits every year in the last four years. USDA data indicates that US per capita consumption of honey grew from 1.20 pounds per person in 2010 to 1.51 pounds, an increase of over 25 percent.
But as American consumption of honey increased, production hasn’t kept pace. Between 2000 and 2015, American honey production declined by nearly 30 percent. As a result of growing demand, weak production, and insufficient imports, the prices of honey have significantly risen. In the last decade, both the producer prices (the amount of money farmers can expect to receive) and retail prices of honey (the amount consumers can expect to pay) have more than doubled.
US honey production has fallen not because there are fewer colonies, but because yield per hive has declined. In fact, between 2006, when CCD was first discovered, and 2015, the number of bee colonies has increased by 10 percent. The greater cause of the decline in honey production is the drop in the honey yield per hive. Between 2005 and 2015, yield per hive has fallen from 72.5 lb to 58.9 lb per hive, a decrease of nearly 20 percent. The drop is more stark if you consider that yield per hive in 2000 was 84 lb per hive; the honey yield declined by nearly 30 percent between 2000 and 2015.
Although US production value of honey has increased, a closer look might generate more alarm. The value has increased only because prices of honey have risen a lot more quickly than production has declined.
To make up for the shortfall in production, the US has significantly increased honey imports from other countries. In 1990, the US produced over 90,000 tonnes of honey and imported roughly 35,000 tonnes, or about 40 percent of domestic production. Twenty-five years later, the ratios have reversed. In 2015, the US produced 71,000 tonnes, while imports have risen to over 175,000 tonnes; domestic production is now 40 percent of imports.
The US has become the world’s largest importer of honey, accounting for just under a quarter of global imports. It sources honey mostly from three countries: India, Vietnam, and Argentina, which altogether account for nearly 60 percent of US honey imports.
China, the world’s largest honey producer and exporter, is curiously absent from the list of top US importers. That’s because in 2000, US beekeepers accused both Chinese and Argentinean honey producers of dumping honey into US markets. The US responded by imposing import duties that as much as tripled the prices of honey from these countries. Although the US has since lifted Argentine duties, it has let tariffs stay in place on Chinese honey, effectively shutting out Chinese producers from the US market. Most Chinese honey exports head instead to Europe, where producers don’t face similar tariffs.
Chinese honey producers weren’t found to have helped their case when the world discovered that many producers had adulterated their honey with antibiotics, thickeners, or water. Still, honey from China has managed to find its way to the US, surreptitiously through trans-shipments. The US has prosecuted the ALW Food Group, headquartered in Germany and with offices in Chicago, for having imported Chinese honey and then disguised its origins. But given the complexity of global supply chains, we can expect that there’s much more honey laundering than the government can intercept.
In spite of the food fraudulence, the US government is able to relieve rising honey prices if it ever feels that they’re too high by eliminating the tariffs on Chinese honey. With private discernment and official monitoring on quality, the US can import more honey from the world’s largest exporter if it wishes.
On the top end of the market, Americans and Europeans have developed a taste for more premium varieties of honey. The best example is manuka honey, which comes from the bees that feed on manuka trees, a dense shrub found mostly in New Zealand and also in Australia. Different plants make for different flavor profiles of honey, and these flavor nuances can mean the difference between a low-end product and a high-end product. While ordinary clover honey can export for 20 US cents an ounce, manuka honey can fetch over $3 per ounce. Thus, exports of highly lucrative manuka honey have made New Zealand the third largest honey exporter by value, even though it ranks outside the top ten exporters by weight.
In addition, more honey-lovers have become excited about Ethiopian honey. The country’s high-altitude terrain and biodiversity are well-suited for raising bees, and people in the region have been cultivating honey for 5,000 years. As Ethiopia refines its honey production capabilities, it’s expected to produce more and better honey.
A decade after CCD was discovered, the worst fears of bee collapse haven’t appeared to have been borne out. In the past three years, CCD’s effects on honeybee populations hasn’t been as devastating as when it was first discovered. The world is now seeing a partial recovery of both honeybee colonies and honeybee populations.
Policymakers have been active in protecting bee populations. In addition to designating certain Hawaiian bees as endangered, the US executive branch has carried out other initiatives to protect bees. President Obama has announced the creation of a “Pollinator Health Task Force” to reverse the decline of bees and other pollinators. Made up of 15 different departments, including interior, defense, and national security, the task force has identified different ways to protect pollinators. In particular, US and European governments have restricted the use of certain pesticides that are suspected to play a major role in CCD.
The number of honeybee colonies fell to the lowest point in 2008, to 2.34 million. That number has moderately recovered since then, to 2.66 million in 2015—a 20 year high. In addition to regulatory action, honeybee populations have recovered because they naturally have high birth rates. Queen honeybees lay up to 1,500 eggs per day; honey producers are also used to replenishing bee populations after regular winter die-offs. Although the decline in bee population has been especially severe in the last few decades, producers have been able to ward off greater declines by working harder to replenish populations, for example by ordering queens from other places. Although it may take a while more for US honey production to significantly increase, the outlook for bees is no longer as bleak as it was a decade ago.