Free Minds & Free Markets

How Capitalism Saved the Bees

A decade after colony collapse disorder began, pollination entrepreneurs have staved off the beepocalypse.

Photos: iStockPhoto; Illustration: Joanna AndreassonPhotos: iStockPhoto; Illustration: Joanna AndreassonYou've heard the story: Honeybees are disappearing. Beginning in 2006, beekeepers began reporting mysteriously large losses to their honeybee hives over the winter. The bees weren't just dying—they were abandoning their hives altogether. The strange phenomenon, dubbed colony collapse disorder, soon became widespread. Ever since, beekeepers have reported higher-than-normal honeybee deaths, raising concerns about a coming silent spring.

The media swiftly declared disaster. Time called it a "bee-pocalypse"; Quartz went with "beemageddon." By 2013, National Public Radio was declaring "a crisis point for crops" and a Time cover was foretelling "a world without bees." A share of the blame has gone to everything from genetically modified crops, pesticides, and global warming to cellphones and high-voltage electric transmission lines. The Obama administration created a task force to develop a "national strategy" to promote honeybees and other pollinators, calling for $82 million in federal funding to address pollinator health and enhance 7 million acres of land. This year both Cheerios and Patagonia have rolled out save-the-bees campaigns; the latter is circulating a petition calling on the feds to "protect honeybee populations" by imposing stricter regulations on pesticide use.

A threat to honeybees should certainly raise concerns. They pollinate a wide variety of important food crops—about a third of what we eat—and add about $15 billion in annual value to the economy, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And beekeepers are still reporting above-average bee deaths. In 2016, U.S. beekeepers lost 44 percent of their colonies over the previous year, the second-highest annual loss reported in the past decade.

But here's what you might not have heard. Despite the increased mortality rates, there has been no downward trend in the total number of honeybee colonies in the United States over the past 10 years. Indeed, there are more honeybee colonies in the country today than when colony collapse disorder began.

Beekeepers have proven incredibly adept at responding to this challenge. Thanks to a robust market for pollination services, they have addressed the increasing mortality rates by rapidly rebuilding their hives, and they have done so with virtually no economic effects passed on to consumers. It's a remarkable story of adaptation and resilience, and the media has almost entirely ignored it.

The Bee Business

The chief reason commercial beekeeping exists is to help plants have sex. Some crops, such as corn and wheat, can rely on the wind to transfer pollen from stamen to pistil. But others, including a variety of fruits and nuts, need assistance. And since farmers can't always depend solely on bats, birds, and other wild pollinators to get the job done, they turn to honeybees for help with artificial insemination. Unleashed by the thousands, the bees improve the quality and quantity of the farms' yields; in return, the plants provide nectar, which the bees use to produce honey.

Honeybees are essentially livestock. Their owners breed them, rear them, and provide proper nutrition and veterinary care to them. Unlike bumblebees and wasps, honeybees are not native to North America; the primary commercial species, the European honeybee, is thought to have been introduced by English settlers in the 17th century.

Commercial beekeepers are migratory. They truck their hives across the country in tractor trailers on a journey to "follow the bloom," stacking their hives on semis and moving at night while the bees are at rest. Most travel to California in the early spring to pollinate almonds. After that, they take their own routes. Some go to Oregon and Washington for apples, pears, and cherries; others to the apple orchards of New York. Some pollinate fruits and vegetables in Florida in the early spring, followed by blueberries in Maine.

Like any such transit project, accidents happen—as when one beekeeper, Lane Miller, crashed his truck in a canyon near Bozeman, Montana, in 2014. More than 500 hives—about 9 million sleepy, angry bees—spilled onto the roadway. "The bees were so agitated you could barely see the beekeepers or the wreckage itself," said the local fire chief at the time. After 14 hours, hundreds of stings, and a crew of emergency beekeepers, the road finally reopened.

Still, the migration is mostly uneventful. After blooming season, beekeepers shift their focus from pollinating crops to making honey. Many commercial crops that require honeybee pollination, such as almonds and apples, do not provide enough nectar for the bees to produce surplus honey. So in the summer, beekeepers often head to the Midwest, where they essentially pasture the bees, turning their hives loose in fields near sunflower, clover, or wildflowers, which supply large amounts of nectar and allow the bees to make plenty of honey. When summer ends, the beekeepers truck their bees back south to spend the winter in warmer climates.

Some observers claim that this annual migration is contributing to colony collapse. As the food writer Michael Pollan put it in The New York Times in 2007, "the lifestyle of the modern honeybee leaves the insects so stressed out and their immune systems so compromised that, much like livestock on factory farms, they've become vulnerable to whatever new infectious agent happens to come along." But it is precisely this modern-livestock lifestyle and the active markets for pollination services that have allowed non-native honeybees to flourish on our continent. They are the reason honeybee populations have remained steady even in the face of disease and other afflictions.

The Fable of the Bees

Before the 1970s, it was widely believed among academics that the pollination industry's very existence was a problem. In a 1952 paper, the appropriately named economist J.E. Meade argued that honeybee pollination was an "unpaid factor" in apple farming, since orchard owners and beekeepers did not coordinate their production decisions. Both produce what economists call "positive externalities," or spillover benefits for the other, causing inefficiencies. Since "the apple-farmer cannot charge the beekeeper for the bee's food, which the former produces for the latter," Meade believed that certain "subsidies and taxes must be imposed." (Indeed, Washington established a honey price-support program in 1952 with the goal of promoting pollination. The program was briefly eliminated in 1996, but has since been resurrected.)

But then another economist, Steven Cheung, investigated how the honeybee pollination market actually worked. In a 1973 study, he found plenty of contracting between beekeepers and orchard owners to overcome the problem Meade had identified. All he had to do was open the yellow pages of the phone book to find listings for pollination services. "The fable of the bees," as Cheung called it, was blackboard theorizing. Real-life farmers and beekeepers were solving this problem on their own.

Sometimes the farmers paid the beekeepers to pollinate their crops; other times the beekeepers paid the farmers for the right to place hives in their orchards. It all depended on which activity—pollination or honey production—generated more value in that instance. Sometimes the exchange involved both money and honey. Meade, meanwhile, had gotten his central example backward: Apple pollination does not yield much honey, so the beekeeper charges the apple farmer, not the other way around.

The details differ, but markets for pollination services clearly exist and work quite well. Today, commercial beekeeping is a $600–$700 million industry that spans all regions of the country. And now the beekeepers and farmers are working together to overcome another apiary challenge: dead bees.


Photo Credit: iStockPhoto

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  • brec||

    ...colony collapse disorder increased the price of a one-pound can of almonds by a tenth of a percent—a mere 8 cents for a can of Smokehouse Almonds.

    Eighty dollars for a can of almonds? No, thanks!

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    + 0.1%

  • Jaws||

    My math is the same as brecs. If an 8 cent price increase equals .1% then the can of almonds is $80.

    Something doesn't compute.

  • DJF||

    Artisanal Almonds?

  • SQRLSY One||

    No, this was a 100-pound can of Smokehouse Almonds for $80, which is less than a dollar a pound, and so, was a GOOOOOD deal!!!

    So go pound almonds...

  • Jerryskids||


  • SQRLSY One||

    I agree!

    So now that colony collapse disorder is passe, I would like to call your attention to "Sun Collapse Disorder", in which instances the Dragon eats the Sun God... IT'S GONNA HAPPEN, I'm a tellin' ya!!!! 21 August 2017, across large swatches of the continental USA, I say!!! Mark my words!!!

    (Now I am going to need a $1,540,367,229.37 federal grant, approximately, and I assure you, I will be able to FORCE the Dragon to UN-eat the Sun God!!!!)

  • John B. Egan||

    It's only passé to people of small intellect who don't understand the issues involved. Thinking people realize that it isn't just bees, but all flying insects that are dying off. I was pleased to see a Tiger Swallowtail yesterday..Something I would see in abundance, along with Viceroys and a multitude of other insects as a kid. But! Bees are a big issue to an agricultural state.

  • Longtobefree||

    Must be fake news. No massive government intervention and the problem didn't turn into a catastrophe.
    Maybe we can apply that lesson to health care and health care insurance?
    Nah, I didn't think so.

  • Libertarian||

    We're warned of crisis after devastating crisis, and yet we seem to avoid them (the disappearance of bees, Y2K, global warming, etc.) It seems most of our real crises aren't solved by the government, but created by the government (wars, most famines, etc.) I can't remember the details, but I have read that even the flu epidemic of the early 20th cent was exacerbated by local governments keeping infections secret.

  • Garth Bigelow||

    No massive government intervention and the problem didn't turn into a catastrophe.

    That is usually how it works. Bring in government intervention and the problem really begins.

  • Zeb||

    How so? Is it not something that happened? As I understand it, it is a real phenomenon and for a few years it was bad enough that bee hives for pollination were in short supply. It may not have actually been a sign that all the bees were about to die (obviously now it wasn't), but it was reason to be concerned.

    Of course, Dipshit Dickhead thinks it was all a liberal conspiracy. To accomplish what, I'm not sure.

  • Zeb||

    So, "increasingly likely" = "definitely true"?

    You may be right, but I hope you will excuse me if I don't take your word for it.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    Another subscriber to the theory that you want your oncologist to have cancer.

  • sarcasmic||

    If you ever met the guy you'd want him to have cancer. Dude is a total asshole.

  • GroundTruth||

    Did you read the article?

  • RandyB||

    Corduroy is correct. I'm a bee keeper. The article makes a passing reference to the varroa mite. Varroa Destructor is what has devastated honey bee colonies. There is not a honeybee colony in North America that is not infested. Beekeepers who do not do regular mite counts and treat at the proper times will lose their colonies. If you wait to long it will be to late, and the damage will be done. Mites weaken the colony and leave it susceptible to disease. Not unlike aids in humans. When honeybees are sick they will leave the colony and not return so as not to infect the entire colony, which is why these beekeepers find near empty hives. The fact that commercial beekeepers truck their hives all over the country to maintain a mono culture has helped spread varroa.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Good article about bees. I give it a B+

    Bees!?! Beads. Beez!?! Bzzz.

  • Eek Barba Durkle||


  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    Beekeepers have proven incredibly adept at responding to this challenge. Thanks to a robust market for pollination services, they have addressed the increasing mortality rates by rapidly rebuilding their hives, and they have done so with virtually no economic effects passed on to consumers. It's a remarkable story of adaptation and resilience, and the media has almost entirely ignored it.

    Market? Gasp! You mean these people are...making a...profit?! Literally. Shaking.

  • timbo||

    Finally those capitalist pigs will pay for their crimes, eh comrade?

  • sarcasmic||

    Makes me wonder if this "collapse disorder" was in fact lousy beekeepers whining and asking for a government bailout. I'd like to know how common this actually was, or if there were competent beekeepers who did just fine. Looks like the latter based upon actual numbers, and this was just a bailout for incompetents with connections. I've talked with beekeepers from time to time, and they describe it as "a labor of love" which tells me that it's a specialized field with a small profit margin and a lot of competition.

  • JFree||

    Wild pollinators such as bumblebees, butterflies, and other native insects really do appear to be in decline, thanks to habitat loss and agricultural development. After all, unlike honeybees, there is no commercially minded beekeeper to look after them.

    So is this turning into a monoculture then? These seem connected since the amount of land is fixed - honeybees and the flowers/crops they need year-round are rewarded by the pricing system at the expense of the other pollinators and the flowers/crops. I do know that butterflies actually need different foods at their caterpillar v adult stage.

  • OM Nullum gratuitum prandium||

    What we need is Affirmative Action for non-honeybee pollinators.

    Check your privilege, honeybee!

  • Libertarian||

    Do bees ask permission before pollinating a flower?

  • JFree||

    At least re the almond, the honeybees are simply being enslaved. They (the bees themselves - not the rentier of them) ain't getting rewarded for that pollination. And my guess is that the increasing acreage of monoculture almonds in CA (from what I see - 150k acres in 1970 to 750k acres now) has turned it into a bee desert for the rest of the year there for the wild pollinators. So those bees will keep declining - and there is a limit to how far the pollination price can increase (from 50 pre-2005 to 150 post-2005) since that price is already pulling in 50% of all honeybee hives in the US during almond season.

    Basically, this looks to me like the beginnings of the same debt/land price problem that, a century ago, ultimately led to the Dust Bowl. The price of land (fuelled by WW1 debt then) - moved the land beyond the price sustainable by ranching. So to pay back loans, the land was quickly broken and plowed into grain production. And when grain prices fell, it was plowed even more quickly/intensely. All it then took was a return of drought and whoosh topsoil gone and a ton of Okies.

    The pricing solution is to get out of the monoculture mindset - which is entirely a consequence of viewing 'land' as simply the same economic factor as 'capital'. It isn't. And it is a huge failure of neoclassical economics that land itself has been reduced to nothing significant. This has fucking NOTHING to do with attitudes about govt v market.

  • sarcasmic||

    What the fuck are you talking about?

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    It's a bee DESERT! Let the rending of garments begin.

  • JFree||

    Just another consequence of almonds - which is really driving this whole thing not 'bees'. Almond production (a very water intensive crop) uses more water in CA than all residential/commercial/industrial use combined. Technically these two usages aren't 'competing'. Rather the increased usage of water for almonds is coming at the expense of non-monetized water (rivers/wetlands) - that create the habitats that the wild pollinators live on for the rest of the year when almonds aren't pollinating.

    There is no problem that 'capitalism' (pricing system based on borrowed money) is actually 'saving' here. It COULD. But not as long as land itself is simply viewed as a form of capital. Irony is - that failure of neoclassical economics is DIRECTLY driven by neoclassical economists adopting MARX'S view that everything was either labor or capital.

    One of these things is gonna fail - water, bees, land prices sustained by debt, control of almond prices by CA producers. Guaranfuckingteed.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    Land is totally special.

  • sarcasmic||

    I get it. The same rules that apply to other markets don't apply to land because.. um.. could it be related to how market rules don't apply to health care? K. I don't get it.

  • JFree||

    Land IS different than either labor or capital. Every classical economist knew that - Smith, Physiocrats, Ricardo, George, even Marx (though he dismissed it for his own political/social agenda) etc - right up until marginalists/neoclassical.

    And the reason is fucking simple. The supply is for all practical purposes FIXED. It can be made more efficient - but for all the increases in capital/labor over the centuries, the amount of land is the same. It is why classical economists could actually understand 'rentier' problems (which are the source of all RENT-seeking) - and why you can't and why you are reduced to mere slogans.

  • sarcasmic||

    I was about to thank you for a somewhat rational explanation until

    and why you can't and why you are reduced to mere slogans.

    So much for having a conversation.


  • Eric Bana||

    I love how the doomsdayers get proven wrong over and over again. I just wish at some point they'd shut up though.

  • sarcasmic||

    Doomsday cult leader has to be among the top five oldest professions. It's as old as recorded history, and has been profitable the entire time. Shit, an argument could be made that Christianity started as a doomsday cult, until it reached the full status of religion. Ever read Revelation? The end is always near. Signs have been there for two thousand years.

  • GILMORE™||

    Doomsday cult leader has to be among the top five oldest professions.

    Even if it doesn't have a cult or a leader, there is a widespread (for lack of a better term) "Eschatological Impulse" in society that affects rich/educated people just as strongly as it does poor/ignorant people.

    In short, we're preconditioned to believe stories that suggest "the world is coming to an end". And we seem to find doomsday stories especially convincing if you add in an element that shows that its happening 'because humankind made it happen, because mankind is sinful and deserves punishing'

    They are 2 different factors, but they go together like apple pie and vanilla ice cream: "The world is ending"+"its all your(our) fault"

    and yes, that's probably a large chunk of why early Christianity was so successful; the notion of original sin, mankind is fallen and needs redemption, yadda yadda.

    when people eventually get over the Climate Change insanity (and i think they eventually will when it becomes clear that change - if any - is super slow and hardly catastrophic), it will only be when they've found some other, new and scary form of mankind's self-destruction to pump. Probably be related to genetic engineering; some variant on the 'superbug' thesis.

  • Robert||

    Don't forget the role of bumble bees in canning fish, or of spelling bees in casting spells.

  • Jon_Roland||

    CCD is still a real problem, even if beekeepers have found workarounds. We need to find the underlying causes.

  • JFree||

    Personally I think its just 'overwork'. This author cites the stat that colonies have increased by 16% to about 2.5 million since 2006 - but still 40% or so winter mortality. But the reality is that there were 11 million colonies in WW1, 5 million in WW2 and declined to 2+ million by 2006. They are covering prob 200% more acreage in need of pollination - almost all of it now monoculture (so no mix of nectars - and the need for long-distance seasonal hive mobility - and not much of a winter 'vacation' to eat stored honey anymore). Bees haven't evolved to fly faster or carry more nectar. The bees aren't getting much out of this deal - and as long as the price of sugar never changes, the number of honeybee colonies will face downward pressure.

    Maybe monoculture isn't going to be able to take 'pollination' for granted anymore - unlike mixed ag. Beekeepers are going to need pollination fees to cover their entire revenue stream cuz that's the only thing that will a)bring non-honeybee pollinators back or b)increase the number of honeybee colonies by 100%+ not a piddly 16%.

  • ||

    Great article!

  • John B. Egan||

    Bee populations dropped significantly from basically 6 million hives to less than 2 million hives between 1947 and 2013. it is not at all surprising that people were worried:

    Only in the last few years have the efforts of beekeepers managed to increase very slightly the number of hives. I'm not sure why this author is chortling over a minor uptick in hives as if this is some great 'capitalist' success story..And do I read into this that the obvious solution to all of our ills is 'free market capitalism'? Really?

  • Henry Buttal||

    Since many countries didn't report bee populations before the sixties and seventies, and countries like India didn't start until the last 10 years, I'd say your graph of unknown origin is Bee S...

    Global populations are actually growing.

  • Larkspur||

    Beekeepers lost nowhere near 33% of their colonies last year or any other year for that matter. Since 2006 when the misnomer CCD was trotted out - by an environmental "journalist" - who didn't do their fact checking, the number of colonies in the US has soared from 2.1 million to 3.1 million in 2016. A 50% increase. For several years running, the 4 major metrics for the beekeeping / honey production / pollination industry have been on the rise. 1-number of colonies, 2-total pounds produced, 3-pounds per hive, 4-price per pound. The average losses for commercial beekeepers who operate 98% of the colonies in the US has averaged 8% - 12% every year for many decades. Why anyone would align themselves and revel in a false narrative that proclaims the honey bee is in demise when exactly the opposite is true is beyond me, but again, you are entitled to your opinion. Steven Lechner, Busy Bee Farm, Larkspur, Colorado. #fakebeenews #beenews #fakenews

  • trudybeauty||

    I always love these simple-minded "libertarian" analyses.
    "Libertarians" cannot understand complex systems and their interactions and side-effects. And can't ever miss putting some fake "market-solution" twist.
    For those interested in real science, here is the market at work and the entire picture.
    "The United States is the only nation in the world that annually transports half or more of all its honeybee colonies (60+%) to a single location–California's Central Valley–where they pollinate the lucrative almond crop. From January through March, bees are trucked in from around the country, and mostly from distant Florida. The bees, which have barely emerged from their winter cluster, are often stressed to the breaking point. Then bees from around North America are mixed with one another, ensuring that a disease that surfaces in one part of the country soon spreads to California and beyond."

    See: article Beepocalypse Myth Handbook: Dissecting claims of pollinator collapse

  • Helgamarie||

    Thank you for this informative article on our beloved honeybees! I live in the city but I believe that I'm a would be farmer/rancher at heart. No doubt there would be lots of hives and farm animals (but none that would have to be slaughtered)! So glad that this disastrous, predicted die off of our honeybees did not happen because the bee keepers acted appropriately to prevent it!


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