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Science by news release: Media miss on bee “extinction” reports

| May 18, 2016

When it comes to covering bees and farming, a week does not go by without an out of context headline or a poorly written story creating misconceptions about a genuinely important issue.

The latest fumble came over the past week when the USDA released its first-ever honey bee health survey showing an 8 percent drop in total honey bee hives since last January. A number of reporters turned this dip into scare headlines, but few dropped the ball as badly as Alan Bjerga, writing for Bloomberg. His headline: U.S. Bee Colonies Continue to Decline as Pests, Chemicals Blamed.

But it wasn’t just the headline that failed to contextualize the issue correctly, the report itself also missed the mark. To be clear: bee colonies in the U.S. are not ‘continuing to decline.’ Yes, they declined in the one-year survey—falling from recent highs. But there is no downward trend, in the U.S. or anywhere in the world, despite the insinuations in the headline and article.

As can be seen in the chart below, honey bee hive numbers, as tracked by USDA’s long-standing survey of honey-producing hives, have held steady since the introduction of neonicotinoid insecticides in the 1990s.

US Department of Agriculture
US Department of Agriculture

The drop around 2006 is blamed on Colony Collapse Disorder, a once-in-a-generation occurrence that has been going on for centuries in bee colonies around the world and is not linked to pesticides. (CCD problems, which are distinct from general bee health concerns, have faded significantly, according to the USDA: “In fact, the number of managed colonies that beekeepers have reported losing specifically from CCD has been waning since 2010.”)

The global numbers are even more dramatic. The varroa problem caused a brief dip in the early 1990s but otherwise bee hives have been thriving for more than 40 years.

UN Food and Agriculture Organization
UN Food and Agriculture Organization

The Bloomberg headline also blamed “chemicals” for this mythical decline. They are a risk factor as the bee association spokesmen noted. But according to the USDA and a slew of studies, they are likely way down the list of culprits. Major drivers of bee health declines revolve around hive management—bees are pollen slaves, trucked mercilessly around the country—and changes in climate and habitat. But the acknowledged biggest killer is the varroa mite, a deadly parasite that rapidly spreads spread between colonies and also carries vector-borne viruses.

 Reproductive Varroa mite on a developing pupa (reddish oval) and two immature Varroa (opaque ovals)
Reproductive Varroa mite on a developing pupa (reddish oval) and two immature Varroa (opaque ovals)

Varroa became a major North American honey bee pest in the 1980’s—which coincided with a decline in bee health. An April study also spearheaded by University of Maryland’s Dennis van Englesdorp, who oversaw the USDA report, noted that the varroa mite’s demon role in bee health. “We knew that varroa was a problem, but it seems to be an even bigger problem than we first though,” he said. “Moreover, varroa’s ability to spread viruses presents a more dire situation than we suspected.”

The problem is hugely exacerbated by so-called “backyard beekeepers” (those with fewer than 50 colonies)—who have been most vocal in the advocacy campaign targeting neonics. As Englesdorp explained in a recent article, these hobbyist beekeepers often don’t use pesticides–even organic ones—to control varroa and other pest infestations in their hives. When the hives collapse, the survivors–which are laden with mites—fly off to settle in new hives, spreading their infection.

Bee health is an ongoing and alarming problem that shouldn’t be ignored. But policy makers need to look at a realistic picture and not embark on solutions driven by interest groups whose views often lag the science world by years.

The period since the introduction in the 1990s of neonicotinoid pesticides—the focus of advocacy group attacks and a featured part of the Bloomberg article—coincides with a reversal in the downward trend in bee populations in the U.S. and an increase in bee hive numbers. So why call out “chemicals” so prominently in the headline, other than the fact that it livens up headlines and drives web clicks?

Bee flubs

Bloomberg isn’t the only major news company to drop the ball on bee coverage. Consider the New York Times’ coverage of the first-ever global assessment of the world’s pollinator population by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), a United Nations-affiliated body.

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The Times warned, “The birds and the bees need help” because a “decline in pollinators poses threat to world food supply.” Nature, in its story, added, “the ongoing decline in the number of pollinating insects and animals threatens global crop production.” CNN headlined that “pollinators face extinction.”

Not surprisingly, the end-of-the-world melodramatic twists on the IPBES report sent advocacy websites into overdrive. To save the global food supply, we must adopt a political agenda of banning pesticides and GMOs in managed agriculture, according to activist website Takepart, in one of many examples. It claimed, “human activities are putting 40 percent of invertebrate species—which include bees, along with 16 percent of vertebrate pollinators—at risk of extinction.”

Well, no. “Honeybees are not in danger of extinction,” says James E. Tew, an associate professor of entomology at Ohio State University and a honey bee researcher with the state’s Agricultural Research and Development Center. I couldn’t find one entomologist who would claim that any major food pollinators are on the Darwinian chopping block. There is concern about the health but not the survival of wild bees, however, as natural bee habitats shrink, although the data there is fragmentary.

But you can’t totally blame the headline writers and campaigning NGOs. Much of the responsibility for unleashing the hysteria dogs rests with the UN sub-agency and its injudicious news release. “Without pollinators,” one its authors said, “many of us would no longer be able to enjoy coffee, chocolate and apples, among many other foods that are part of our daily lives.”

That’s an irresponsible quote and shocking in that it was uttered by one of the authors of what is supposed to be a highly regarded science-based organization. The disappearance of all or even most pollinators would certainly be catastrophic but there is no indication that’s even close to happening; it’s just the ringing of an alarm bell by one of the authors trying to draw attention to an otherwise unremarkable report.

For the record, crop pollination is not under threat. The press release left out a critical point that the NYT and other reporters should have found in the report itself. Of the varieties of common crop-pollinating bees assessed in either Europe or North America, only two species are ‘threatened’, two are ‘near threatened’ and 42 are not threatened at all.

While pollination makes a substantial contribution to food production and human nutrition, its importance is often wildly overstated. Pollination is completely irrelevant to marine food sources such as fish or animal sources such as livestock. The U.S. Department of Agriculture identifies ten crops that account for over 95% of all U.S. commercial pollination services: almonds, sunflowers, canola for seed, apples, grapes, sweet cherries, watermelons, prunes, cultivated blueberries and avocados – and none are experiencing declining yields due to lack of pollinators. Sure, it’s better to have variety, but these items account for a tiny portion of the overall human diet. Other estimates have put the fraction of truly pollinator-dependent food production, at least in the U.S., at closer to 7.5%—far from the one-third frequently claimed, without reference, in press accounts and studies.

As noted, the overall pollinator picture, while not entirely rosy because of the varroa and other challenges, does not support alarmist claims of extinction or dire threats from killer chemicals. Even IPBES researchers suggest that monomaniacal advocacy campaigns are in danger of bending both the science and policymaking. According to Simon Potts, co-chair of the IPBES assessment, the passionate opposition by anti-pesticide activists to neonic pesticides “has almost hijacked the whole question of what’s causing the declines.”

Jon Entine, Executive Director of the Genetic Literacy Project, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Food and Agricultural Literacy, University of California-Davis. All his views are his own. Follow @JonEntine on Twitter

The GLP featured this article to reflect the diversity of news, opinion and analysis. The viewpoint is the author’s own. The GLP’s goal is to stimulate constructive discourse on challenging science issues.

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