You may have read recently that the number of honeybee colonies is at a 20-year high. At first, that sounds like a reason to cheer. After all, most of the news of late about this critically important pollinator has been about its decline. Unfortunately, the increase in honeybee colonies is good news in only a false-positive sort of way.

What appears to be a dramatic increase in the number of hives — 2.4 million in 2006 to 2.7 million in 2014, according to one report that attributed the numbers to the USDA — is largely the result of commercial beekeepers splitting their hives to increase the number of colonies, said Tim Tucker, a beekeeper in Niotaze, Kansas and president of the American Bee Federation (ABF). They're doing that, he said, just to try and stay even in two areas. One focus is to replace the alarmingly large number of bees that are dying each year from a variety of causes, says Tucker. The second push is to meet the demand for the million-plus hives that California almond growers need to pollinate their trees every spring.

The efforts he attributes to the commercial growers, Tucker is quick to point out, is not to discount the yeoman work that backyard beekeepers and the large number of hobbyist beekeeping clubs around the country are doing to sustain honeybees. But, make no mistake, bee enthusiasts, commercial farmers, environmentalists and others concerned about the 50-year decline in the nation's honey bees can thank commercial beekeepers for the increase in the number of honeybee colonies, said Tucker.

Tim Tucker, president of the American Bee FederationTim Tucker is the president of the American Bee Federation and an advocate for all beekeepers. (Photo: Andrea Mann)

"Commercial beekeepers account for 80 percent of the number of honeybee colonies," said Tucker. "Not said in recent news reports," he stressed, "is what difficulty commercial beekeepers are having in sustaining honeybee populations. They are working nearly twice as hard as ever. We're still not caught up in replacing the bees lost during last winter and commercial beekeepers are already splitting hives now to get ahead of the annual winter losses they know are coming.

"It used to be what we talked about were the winter losses of honeybees," Tucker said. "Now we’re having losses in July and August. That used to never happen to a colony when there was a good queen. I just picked up 22 dead hives the other day. This is not normal."

Splitting the hives helps ensure that California almond growers will have the 1.3-1.4 million hives they need to pollinate the trees in their groves, according to Tucker. The trees are not self-pollinating and their light pink and white flowers need help from the bees to produce the nuts. It's an annual ritual that Tucker said is the biggest pollinating event in the world. Sometime between February and March, 75-80 percent of the country's commercially produced honeybees are busy pollinating the almond trees to ensure a late summer harvest that will produce 80 percent of the world's almonds, according to the California Almond Board. It's a six-week event that ends about the middle of April, the exact timing depending on when the trees flower.

"It's not the bees that are in jeopardy," said Tucker. "I believe we'll always have bees." The issue, as he sees it, is whether we will have enough bees to pollinate critical food crops and for honey production. "Unless things change, what's in jeopardy is the commercial beekeeping industry," Tucker said.

Honeybees fly into a beehiveThe work of commercial beekeepers and their bees are an important part of the food pollination process. (Photo: Smileus/Shutterstock)

How important is commercial beekeeping? Pollinators are responsible in some part for a third of global food production volume, and the tiny honeybee pollinates more than 90 crops, according to the California Almond Board's website. Without honeybees to pollinate crops such as apples, cucumbers, broccoli, onions, pumpkins, carrots and avocados that, like almonds, simply won't grow without them, U.S. farmers could lose $15 billion worth of America's favorite fruits and vegetables, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council website.

"Even now there's not enough money to be made in making honey even if you could sell it a semi-truck load at a time," Tucker said. In the last 20 years, commercial honey production has been down about 80 million pounds annually, he said. About 20 years ago commercial beekeepers produced 220 million pounds of honey a year. Two years ago, it was around 150 million pounds. Last year, he noted, honey production rose to 170 pounds, and while that's good news, the output was still about 50 million pounds below production in the 1990s.

The loss of bees, Tucker contends, is not totally due to the much-publicized colony collapse disorder (CCD), which beekeepers first noted in 2006 and resulted in mass losses of 30-50 percent of the nation's honeybees. Tucker calls CCD a short-term phenomenon. "We haven't seen that since 2009," He said. "What we’re seeing today is a failure of bees to thrive as well as they did 20 years ago." He blames the honeybee's struggle for survival on habit loss, pesticide use, climate change (which he said is affecting their ability to collect nectar and pollen) and the drought in the Western states (which is affecting the blooming cycle of oranges and sage).

Environmental indicators show it's more than the honeybees that are in what Tucker calls serious trouble. He cites populations of frogs and night-flying insects as both being on the decline and said there is a significant decrease in biodiversity.

The result from CCD and environmental factors is that even with the increase in hives we are nowhere close to the honeybee population of the 1960s-1980s, Tucker said, pointing out that other bees are struggling, too. "I haven't seen a bumble bee all year."

Bees crawl along a honeycombBees have also thrived thanks to sideline beekeepers. (Photo: Darios/Shutterstock)

Still, all is not gloom and doom for the little honeybee. Lots and lots of new beekeepers are starting in business to supply bees to what Tucker calls sideline beekeepers, which he describes as people who make a bit of money from beekeeping but still working a daytime, usually full-time job, and to hobbyist beepers, those who keep bees to enjoy the honey the little creatures produce. Both of these types of beekeepers, Tucker points out, are increasing the demand for bees.

Tucker also has some good news for hobbyist beekeepers and those who would like to learn how to start backyard hives. The American Bee Federation is planning a free and open-to-the-public fall webinar series on the basics of beekeeping. Called "Prime Time With Honeybees," the webinar will cover such topics as honeybee biology, the basics of how to get started in beekeeping and honeybee pollination. The ABF will post information about the webinar on its website when the details are finalized. ABF's archived information about beekeeping, including a series on beginning beekeeping, is available on the website to ABF members. For information about how to join ABF, visit the website.

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