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Yes, The Honeybee Is Still In Trouble

Recent media reports make it seem like the bee-pocalypse has been solved. We only wish.

"Call off the bee-pocalypse," read a Washington Post headline in 2015. Another Post article repeated the same argument this month: "the bees are doing just fine."

Because there are more bee colonies now than there were in 2006—when mass die-offs of bees first gained headlines—the author argues we don't need to keep worrying about honeybees. Beekeepers can keep producing more bees, replacing the bees that die each year.

But even if honeybees don't face extinction, that doesn't mean there isn't a problem. From April 2015 to April 2016, beekeepers lost 44% of their honeybee colonies. For the second year in a row, losses in the summer—traditionally a time when bees thrive—were almost as bad as in the winter.

Replacing all of those bees is incredibly expensive (as the article acknowledges). "The fact is, every single year it's more and more and more expensive," says Amina Harris, director of the Honey and Pollination Center at the University of California-Davis. "Just imagine if you had a business and every year you lost 40% of your business somehow. It's not financially sustainable."

It also isn't sustainable for bees. "Part of the problem is there's a huge demand for queens very early in the season . . . a lot of the queens are not lasting as long as they used to," says Kirsten Traynor, a research associate at the University of Maryland who studies bees. "The beekeepers are having to replace them more frequently, and each time a colony has to replace a queen, there's a danger of that colony dying."

As pressures mount on bees—from pesticides to poor nutrition to parasites and disease—young bees are also beginning to forage at an earlier age, when they're less likely to survive.

"Where bees used to go out and forage at three weeks, now they're going out at two weeks, and they're not fully developed," says Harris. "They're not strong enough and they can't last long. The queens aren't lasting as long. All of these things relate to each other."

Climate change is another challenge; when weather warms too early, bees can begin to raise young too early in the season. The lifecycle can lose sync with the flowers that the bees need to pollinate.

Still, it's true that honeybees have it better than some wild bees at the moment. The rusty patched bumble bee—a species that pollinates crops from apples to alfalfa—was recently recommended to be added to the endangered species list. Seven other wild bees were recently added to the list; an estimated 40% of pollinators are at risk of extinction.

"Honeybees are very resilient," says Traynor. "They have a large workforce, so they can overcome a lot of problems. A lot of our native bees are solitary, so they have a much harder time dealing with changes in climate or when food sources become unavailable."

Many of the same things that can help honeybees, such as not spraying for mosquitoes (millions of bees recently died in South Carolina when the government sprayed for Zika) can also help wild pollinators.

The White House Pollinator Partnership Action Plan is working on series of projects designed to try to reduce annual colony loss to 15%, from developing a natural bee medicine derived from beer hops to restoring 7 million acres of land for pollinators.

But it's a mistake to think that the problem is under control. Helping can be as simple as planting a few pollinator-friendly plants in your yard—or spraying less on your lawn.

"The best thing that people who are concerned can do is to tolerate more clover in their lawn, and be less weed-intolerant," says Traynor. "We keep these immaculate green lawns, and lawns when they are untreated can actually support quite a lot of fall flowers that can provide food, both nectar and pollen, for bees. If we can tolerate a few more dandelions, that will go a long way to providing an extra food source."

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