A new study led by researchers from Montana State University examines the economic impact of colony collapse disorders (CCD) among commercial honeybees.
This research traces back to several years ago when Randy Rucker, a professor in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics in the MSU College of Agriculture, started looking into the phenomenon of colony collapse to estimate its economic impact, along with members from North Carolina State University and Oregon State University. All in all, they report, CCD isn’t a very big threat to current commercial pollinator markets.
Not good, not terrible
"With colony collapse disorder, a beekeeper goes out and virtually all the worker bees are gone," said Rucker.
"Twenty thousand, 30,000, 40,000 worker bees, just gone. There are very few dead worker bees on the ground near the colony, and the queen, the brood and all the food are still there. But the bees are just gone."
CCD is still poorly understood. The phenomenon first came to the attention of the industry and the public during the winter of 2006-2007, when mortality rates among bees were estimated to be around 30% of the total population. Since then, it's been stoking concern in conjunction with other pollinator health issues (such as the Varroa mite) among beekeepers and the public.
Rucker and his team set out to identify the economic effects of CCD by analyzing trends over four categories: nationwide number of commercial honeybee colonies, honey production, the price of queens and packaged bees, and pollination fees charged by commercial beekeepers.
Rucker explains that bee populations naturally fall during the winter months. Prior to the onset of CCD, overall winter mortality rates revolved around 15% -- so beekeepers have a lot of experience replacing dead hives and dealing with bee loses. Typically, they handle these issues in two ways: splitting, or simply buying more bees.
Splitting involves taking half the bees from a healthy colony and moving them to a hive that’s struggling. A newly-fertilized queen (purchased for $18-25 and received through the mail, the team explains) is also added in the mix. In about six weeks’ time, both hives should be up and running healthily. Bees can also be purchased pre-packaged through the mail; such a purchase typically includes a fertilized queen and several thousand worker bees. These ‘reinforcements’ are placed in a dead hive in order to restart it.
The team notes that both methods are relatively easy and inexpensive to pull off for beekeepers, who have relied on them even after the onset of CCD.
"Beekeepers know how to replace dead hives," said Rucker. "As winter mortality increased after CCD appeared and beekeepers worried about having enough hives to meet their pollination contracts in the spring, they responded by splitting more hives in mid- to late summer and would then end up with the number they needed."
Despite the extra splitting and increased demand for bees from beekeepers, the price of queens or the insects has not increased dramatically, the team found. They say this is indicative of the fact that "the supply of queens and packaged bees is sufficiently elastic that any increases in demand associated with CCD have not resulted in measurable increases in price." Similar trends were found for colony numbers and honey production figures. Both metrics saw downward trends before the onset of CCD, and they still do, but the rate of decline hasn't increased. They explain that colony numbers in 2018 were actually higher than they had been over the last 20 years.
The only meaningful negative impact that the team found was in the fees asked for commercial crop pollination. Even there, however, only one commercially important crop showed a significant increase in price: almonds. With about a million acres of almonds in need of pollination each year, it takes about 70% of U.S. managed honeybee colonies to get the job done.
Fees for almonds rose from roughly $70 to almost $160 -- adjusted for inflation -- over the winters of 2004-2005 and 2005-2006. However, that's before the onset of CCD, the team notes
"Almonds get pollinated in February or March, and it's really the only major crop that requires pollination during that time of year," said Rucker.
"Almond pollination fees did go up substantially, but they went up before CCD hit. You can't attribute those increases to colony collapse disorder."
The team says that the findings suggest CCD and other recent pollinator health concerns have little direct consequences on the health of commercial pollinator markets, which is good for both industry and consumers.
"When we started this project, we expected to find huge effects, but we found very small ones," said Rucker. "The only effects we found on consumers, for example, is that they probably pay about 10 cents more for a $7, one-pound can of almonds at the grocery store."
The effects of CCD are so small, Rucker explains, likely because most beekeepers expect some of their bees and honeybee colonies to die over the course of the year, and have traditionally developed methods of dealing with these disruptions. The framework was already there, and beekeepers were able to adapt it quickly and efficiently to overcome the extra disruptions caused, for example, by CCD or mites. But, there are still a lot of unknowns about the disorder, and the paper focused on the particular overlap of colony collapse disorder and economics.
Where wild pollinators are headed is impossible to say based on the results of this paper alone, the team cautions.
"The bottom line is that beekeepers are savvy [businesspeople]," he said. "Our research provides reason for optimism about the future ability of commercial beekeepers to adapt to environmental or biological shocks to their operations and to pollination markets."
"It says nothing, however, about non-managed pollinators. Data on those pollinators' populations are sparse, and the impacts of maladies like CCD on their populations are not well understood. There is definitely much more work to be done to grasp the effects of CCD and other threats to bee health."
The paper "Colony Collapse and the Consequences of Bee Disease: Market Adaptation to Environmental Change" has been published in the Journal of the Association of Environmental and Resource Economists.