By Todd Myers, Environmental Director, Washington Policy Center
Honeybees have become one of the regular talking points among environmental activists who believe we are destroying the planet. Honeybees, they argue, are dying in huge numbers and it puts our entire agricultural system at risk.
This is a particular worry in Washington state where we have the second highest number of pollinated acres in the U.S.
This talking point, however, not only is fundamentally misleading, it is likely to do more harm than good for both honeybees and agriculture. Let’s start with some facts:
- Every year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture surveys beekeepers across the country (I am one) to determine how many hives are lost each year. For 2016, the number of lost hives fell to 33 percent from over 40 percent the previous two years. This is still higher than the traditional level of about 20 percent that was the norm two decades ago, but it is a significant improvement over previous years.
- Second, the total number of hives in the United States actually stands higher today than 20 years ago. Although hive mortality is higher, beekeepers rapidly replace those hives, ensuring they have the hives they need to pollinate crops.
Despite those facts, the dying honeybee has become a useful symbol for environmental activists. They push a number of policies they claim will help protect honeybees. As a beekeeper I find listening to these claims both amusing and annoying. Environmental activists make basic errors, talking about the number of bees (which is essentially meaningless) rather than the number of hives, which is the only meaningful metric.
Their ignorance comes with a cost.
For example, many environmental activists advocate banning a particular type of pesticide, known as neonicotinoid, a.k.a. neonic. Even though the evidence about the effect of neonics on honeybees is inconclusive, activists argue that it is better to be safe than sorry. That simplistic thinking, however, actually brings harm to honeybees.
Policymakers in Europe took this approach and banned neonics in order to help honeybees. After a couple years, the results are in – and they are not good for agriculture or honeybees.
First, the ban had such a negative impact on farmers that the United Kingdom government actually suspended the ban during the summer months – the very period of time when honeybees might be impacted. The ban in the U.K., therefore, is largely symbolic.
Second, farmers in Europe did not stop using pesticides – for obvious reasons. Farmers simply moved to other types of pesticides. In the U.K., farmers moved to pyrethroids and significantly increased their use. Therein lies a problem. Pyrethroids are known to harm honeybees.
The ban on neonics moved farmers from a pesticide with possibly no impact on honeybees to a pesticide that is known to harm honeybees. The sad irony is that banning neonics out of precaution will probably do much more harm than good.
Farmers work very closely with beekeepers. Indeed, farmers often pay beekeepers to provide pollination services, and the last thing they want is to apply pesticides that will kill the honeybees they are paying for.
Having worked in environmental policy for 17 years, I have seen many such examples of how the “precautionary” approach ends up hurting the environment.
Examples: We have stopped timber harvests on federal lands, which not only killed jobs but also left us with unhealthy, fire-prone forests. We subsidize corn-based ethanol even though we know ethanol production does more environmental harm than burning gasoline.
A simplistic approach to environmental science and economics often leaves the environment worse off.
Let’s hope the recent improvement in the survival of honeybee hives continues as a trend. Beekeepers, who have the knowledge and incentive to protect the hives, keep working to make that happen. Let us also hope simplistic political thinking doesn’t intervene, making it more difficult, and doing more harm than good.