The Apis Mellifera: the Cost of Maintaining the Powerful Pollinator

As Colony Collapse Disorder is decimating entire bee colonies, commercial pollinators are faced with rising costs and challenges in an effort to stay in business.

Honey bee pollinating an almond blossom--Courtesy of artolog/Flickr Creative Commons

“A decline in the numbers of Apis Mellifera [the honey bee], the world’s most widely distributed, semi-domesticated insect, doesn’t just mean a shortage of honey for toast and tea.  In fact, the economic value of honey, wax and other bee products is trivial in comparison to the honey bee’s services as a pollinator,” says entomologist May R. Berenbaum in the March 2, 2007 New York Times article “Losing their Buzz.” Oftentimes the debate around Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) focuses solely on the causes of the disappearance of the bees “and the reader,” according to a report by Randal Rucker, agricultural economist, “ is left to speculate on the relationship between CCD and the supply of pollination services.”  The impact of CCD on U.S. commercial pollinators is in fact far reaching:  CCD has a marked effect on the cost of pollination, and on the rising cost of producing honey bees and of renting them for pollination purposes.  An investigation of the economic implications and the economic costs of CCD is an important element of the debate.

The Apis mellifera, the world’s “premier managed pollinator species,” is a principal pollinating actor across the continents.  The honey bee transfers the pollen grain to receptive female floral parts so they can be fertilized.  As the bees flit from flower to flower they collect nectar.  In this process, as Rucker points out,  grains of pollen become attached to their bodies and, in the transferral to the flower, fertilize the plant which enables its reproduction.   As Berenbaum points out in this article,  “3/4 of the 250,000 […] species of flowering plants on the planet rely on mobile partners – pollinators – to carry out this vital process.”  These mobile partners, “’the birds and the bees’ remain an essential fact of life; as long as plants depend on pollinators, so will people.”

PBS reports on the bees’ role in pollinating our crops:

A strong colony of honey bees, as Rucker et al. point out in this article, consists of one queen, 15,000-30,000 worker bees that are sterile females and a few thousand males or drones whose sole responsibility is to fertilize the queen.  Although colonies have historically always suffered losses, in 2006 David Hackenberg, a Pennsylvania bee-keeper noticed an unprecedented  decline in his colonies.  The unusual characteristics of the empty hives, with no dead bodies around, has been leading scientists ever since to speculate on the cause of what became known as Colony Collapse Disorder.

CCD has had strong repercussions on the commercial pollinating business.  Although bee colony decline, according to Berenbaum in this article, has not affected corn and other grain crops that are fertilized by the wind, it has seriously affected animal-pollinated foods:  most fruits, nuts, and vegetables – the diet from which we derive all vitamins.    As a result of CCD, beekeeping, an age old tradition dating back to the ancient Egyptians 5000 years ago, is seeing the costs of bee production rise.  Producers are confronted with the increased costs of renting bees to pollinate their crops, according to Hoy Carman, Professor of Agricultural & Resource Economics at U. C. Davis.

Bees being trucked--Courtesy of Emmett Unlimetted/Flickr Creative Commons

Colony losses and the need for colony replacement are understood as an intrinsic part of bee keeping and replacement methods are generally expensive.  After 2006, winter losses increased from 14 to 36%, and beekeepers have been working to address this sharp increase.  The method of choice used to replace about 80% of the colonies lost is a costly one.  It is the “making increase” method or splitting of the hive: 50% of the hive is moved to a healthy and new hive that will be fertilized by a queen acquired from a commercial queen breeder.  This expensive process relies on the buying of one queen bee per split.  In addition to the cost of the queen, Rucker points out that the beekeeper incurs a 20 minute labor cost per colony to transfer “the four or five frames of brood, bees, and honey stores from the parent colony to stock the nuc colony.”  Boulder Colorado beekeeper, Tom Theobald, sympathizes with the challenges commercial beekeepers are faced with:  “I sympathize with commercial beekeepers.  I can survive the exit of bee keeping from my life.  For these commercial beekeepers this is their life.  They don’t deserve this.”

As the number of bee colonies decline, not only are our crops at stake but so is the business of commercial beekeeping.

5 thoughts on “The Apis Mellifera: the Cost of Maintaining the Powerful Pollinator

  1. Drew

    Why isn’t there any wider concern among the population at large about this problem? Given the economic stakes, it is clear that this crisis can undermine agricultural production unless it is addressed and the costs will only rise as the colonies decrease. Maybe it is not surprising that in an industrial society so little attention is paid to agriculture. Only when people grown their own food do they realize the challenges of feeding themselves.

  2. Mina

    I was just speaking with one of my friends about CCD–but had never thoughts (stupidly) about the economic implications of CCD… thanks for getting me up to speed!

  3. Alexander

    Great article, Fiamma. It’s very true–when we think of the honeybee we often think of the wax and the honey that it creates and forget about it’s pollinating capacities–and yet,its capacity to pollinate is probably most important.

  4. Vinnie

    I had no idea CCD had such economic implications. And I’m with Theobald, I feel bad for the commercial beekeepers.
    Thanks, Fiamma, great post.

  5. Nicholas Zutt

    Interesting post, Fiamma. I had never given much thought to the economic implications of CCD… I never realized that the disappearance could have such implications period. Thanks for the food for thought!

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