US bee populations have steadily declined over the past few decades. While commercial honey bee colonies have received attention from the CDC to restore stability, wild bee populations continue to dwindle.
The importance of bees cannot be overstated, as they are responsible for pollinating 80% of flowering plants. In the US, honey bees pollinate $15 billion in agricultural products each year, including more than 130 types of fruit, nuts, and vegetables.
Pollinators, including honey bees and wild bees, add up to $200 billion annually in ecological services. These include their vital role in producing food for wildlife, maintaining soil health, and keeping water clean, in addition to their role in pollinating agricultural products.
Several factors, including pesticides, parasites, and habitat loss, are responsible for the decline in bee colonies nationwide.
Where are honey bees most common?
According to the most recent data, California, Texas, and Florida host 55% of all US commercial honey bee colonies. California produces about half of the fruits, nuts, and vegetables grown in the country and requires plenty of pollinators to ensure crop outputs are high.
Every February, upwards of 70% of all commercial honey bees are sent to California to pollinate agricultural products.
Honey bee populations face regional challenges, resulting in differing loss rates across the United States. Kansas had the highest average quarterly colony loss rate between 2015 and 2022, losing one-fifth of state honey bee colonies each season. New Mexico and Arizona followed at 18% average quarterly losses over the same period.
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How have honey bee populations decreased over time?
Commercial honey bee populations were in a steady decline until 2008. They have remained relatively stable since then, apart from high losses during the winter. The US had 2.67 million honey bee colonies 2022, slightly down from the year before.
Between January 2015 and June 2022, the US lost 11.4 million honey bee colonies and added 11.1 million.
Annual loss rates for honey bees have improved compared to previous decades, such as the 1980s when rates were as high as 9% nationwide. The highest loss rate over the past decade has been 4%, indicating a concerning but manageable decline for those who rely on bees for crop pollination.
During this same period, beekeepers also saved 9.4 million colonies from collapse by introducing new queen bees or honey bees. Sustainable efforts like this help prevent colony loss rates from increasing in the future.
What is causing the decline in bee populations?
US bee populations are declining due to parasites, pesticides, habitat loss, disease, and more. These losses have critical implications for food production and ecosystem health. In spring 2022, more than 40% of all colonies were afflicted with varroa mites, a parasite that targets bees.
Despite this disorder, commercial honey bee populations have increased by 10% since 2006, thanks in part to the close monitoring of colony health by the CDC and the Environmental Protection Agency.
The same cannot be said for wild (or native) bees, which are responsible for pollinating the plants native to their environment. While commercial honey bees are adept at pollinating many different species, wild bees are more efficient at pollinating specific crops in their area.
Since most government data on bees focuses on commercial honey bee colonies, wild bee numbers are often neglected and suffer from Colony Collapse Disorder with little oversight. Many wild bee populations in localized areas have continued to decline steadily as a result.
This is partially why farmers move commercial honey bees to California in February: Since many of the state’s native bee species have been in continuous decline, temporarily relocated commercial honey bees must support the state’s agriculture.
There is limited data on wild bee populations, which aren’t included in these datasets even though they play a critical role in their ecosystems.
Where does this data come from?
Data on honey bees comes from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, which provides detailed information on population counts and colony health. Annual honey bee data ranges back to 1987, while quarterly data ranges back to January 2015.