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Lower Honey Production Not Necessarily Linked to CCD

by Chris Hinyub, published

A new government report shows that honey-production in the U.S., and California in particular, dropped dramatically in 2011. Data from the NASS also shows that honeybee colony numbers are on the decline nationally, rekindling the debate over agribusiness' role in Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)– a mysterious phenomenon that is said to cause the die-off of about 30 percent of commercial hives each year.

According to the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), U.S. beekeepers produced 148 million pounds of honey in 2011, a 16 percent fall from 2010 levels. In California specifically, the declines were even more severe. Golden State hives made 17.8 million pounds. This is 35 percent less than in 2010, says the NASS report.

Here are some other report findings:

  • Nationwide, 2.49 million colonies made honey in 2011 – down 7 percent from 2010. In California, the year-over-year reduction in colonies was 10 percent, down to 370,000 hives.
  • The yield per colony averages were lower both on state and national levels. Nationally, 59.6 pounds were averaged by each hive in 2011, down 9 percent. The yield per colony average in California was 48 pounds. Compared this with 67 pounds per colony in 2010.

As production falls, prices rise. Last year, honey fetched a record price of $1.73 a pound, up 7 percent from 2010.

The NASS report comes on the heels of a controversial Harvard study which purports to link CCD to a certain class of pesticides used primarily on corn crops. The validity of the report's findings, which garnered national media attention and a grassroots lobbying campaign calling for the EPA to revoke permits given to chemical giant Bayer, the manufacturer of the neonicotinoid pesticide in question, has since been challenged. Bayer CropScience responded with strong claims against the Harvard researchers, accusing them of conducting junk science.

So are honey yields down as a result of science-gone-awry or would linking an over-two-decades-old pesticide to the recent disappearance of honeybee hives be bad science? Actually, as Eric Mussen –extension apiculturist at UC Davis– told Capital Press, the slack in honey production might have more to do with economics than anything else. He said a “big factor” (other than weather related issues surrounding nectar availability) is the profit-based decision that beekeepers must make when faced with the choice of having their bees pollinate crops or make honey. As it just so happens, there are more incentives for apiarists to go the pollination route. Only a third of revenues from the $20 billion beekeeping industry derive from producing honey. The bulk now comes from pollinating crops for farmers.

Since a CCD-induced regional bee shortage began effecting California agriculture in 2005, pollination services have tripled in expense. In 2004, a hive averaged $54. By 2006 hives were going for $136, according to a UC Davis study. Now, almond growers (the largest consumer of pollination services in the country) are willing to pay $175 per hive. Interestingly, California's neighbor to the north has remained relatively unscathed by CCD.

The fact that the NASS data shows hive numbers on the decline isn't an indication of CCD having an effect on commercial beekeeping either. Mussen, in a separate interview said that the realities of beekeeping have driven costs to over $200 per hive. “That was the total operating cost a couple of years ago, and that has risen,” said Mussen, according to Capital Press. He added that 25 percent of honeybee operations are affected by CCD.

Those risks, combined with fungal diseases, bee-immune-suppressing insects such as Varroa mites, and rising costs of inputs necessary to keep honeybee colonies healthy and thriving, have likely pushed some beekeepers out of business.

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