On Strong AI & Robotics

Stop Worrying About the Bees

And the First Honeybee Vaccine

They vaccinated a bee!

Ok it’s more than just one bee but I like how absurd that sentence sounds, kind of like “they did surgery on a grape.”

In this article from BBC News, sprinkled amongst cliche doom-spreading, they manage to report the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) approved the world’s first vaccine for honeybees, specifically to defend against American foulbrood disease.

The deployment is pretty cool:

It works by introducing an inactive version of the bacteria into the royal jelly fed to the queen, whose larvae then gain immunity.

Apis mellifera (honeybee) [public domain: USGS/Sam Droege]

Ok, so that vaccine is neat and I hope it works. Probably better than the main alternative solution which is literally to burn everything to the ground. And I also hope it doesn’t accidentally create hordes of mutant killer bees…which would never happen except for that one time.

But one big way this BBC article is misleading is with the sentence: “The US has seen annual reductions in honey bee colonies since 2006, according to the USDA.”

There are annual patterns but the total number of honeybee colonies has increased in that time period (in the United States).

Another article proposes the vaccine “could provide a solution to rapidly declining bee populations.” Huh? What rapidly declining bee populations?

Consider this:

It’s not the honeybees that are in danger of going extinct…It is the beekeepers providing pollination services because of the growing economic and management pressures.

(Vegetable Growers News)

Yet the seemingly-memetic fear-mongering in most news articles and from individuals on social media continues unabated. This is the typical thing I see on social media (credit: @dystopian_DU):

“No bees, no food.” And this vaccine is the only solution. Even though it doesn’t address the “leading cause of beekeeper angst”: Varroa mites. How could I be glib about this? All the bees are going extinct and the food chain will collapse any minute! We all have to chip in and do our parts!

Nope. Calm down. First, there would still be food without bees. But that’s a whole other can of worms I won’t get into here. Let’s just focus on bees…

Honeybees are not on an endangered list and they never have been.

The total number of honeybee colonies in the US has been, roughly, the same every year since 2007, and possibly trending slightly upwards.

The total in the US is somewhere around 3 million colonies lately. Each colony has tens of thousands of bees.

In 2021, the high was 3.17 million. I couldn’t find the number for 2006 on the USDA website, but presumably it was much lower due to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)—this article claims it was 2.4 million in 2006. According to USDA/NASS, in 2007 the US had 2.88 million colonies. Here’s every-5-years data from 2002 to 2017 (chart by me):

Now if we were to compare the 3 million value to 1947, when there were 5.9 million colonies, then yes there has been a decline between those years overall. But it’s been going well since the CCD scare.

My state, California, alone has over 1 million colonies. As an aside: the use of honeybees as pollinators has a side effect of generating valuable honey—but with almond orchards in California, the honey doesn’t taste very good so beekeepers charge more for the pollination service.

The loss/gain varies each quarter and by state. From 2021 to 2022, Missouri had a 118.8% increase in colonies but Kansas had a 38.8% decrease.

The data doesn’t seem to be out yet for the whole of 2022, so there is a possibility there was a total loss compared to the previous year, I don’t know yet. In April 2022 we were at 2.92 million colonies. As I said, it’s been “roughly” the same since 2007.

Even when there’s more losses than average in a year, the total can grow because they keep adding new colonies at a higher rate than they’re losing them. It’s almost as if the professionals know what they’re doing.

But can’t they stop all the losses? Well I don’t know about that. It seems that Varroa mites aren’t going away: “You always have to be on top of them.” Varroa mites were the number one stressor in 2021.

Varroa mite [public domain: USGS/Sam Droege]

If you’re worried about maintaining the mythical “natural state” of things it’s a bit too late. Honeybees are not even native to the United States.

Bombus veteranus (bumblebee) [public domain: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab / Naturalis Biodiversity Center]

Honeybees and bumblebees are easy to root for—they look cute. That is, until 20,000 bees swarm a hotdog cart in the city. But not all bees look cute, and many do not even live in colonies.

Surprisingly, solitary bees such as native mason bees can be more efficient pollinators:

It takes about two hundred and fifty mason bees to pollinate one acre of apple trees. It would take approximately ten thousand to two hundred fifty-thousand honeybees to accomplish the same task.

Something that one might worry about (everyone needs a hobby) is the variety of species of bees—especially what’s happening with wild bees. However, over a 140-year period (to 2013) in Northeastern US, of 187 native species analyzed, only 3 declined steeply, all in the genus Bombus. Bombus are the bumblebees, but not all bumblebee species have declined.

I am not a bee or agriculture expert. If you have conflicting data or reports feel free to send it to me. However, I’m not interested in your aunt’s anecdotal claim that there’s less bees around the back yard these days.

To end on a fun note, check out these Macro Bee Portraits by Sam Droege and the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab. The full set of photos can be found at the USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab Flickr page.