To bee or not to bee? Is the world really facing a beepocalypse?

By Lykke E. Andersen

Like many people, I hate insects, especially the ones that sting or bite; and spiders simply for being spiders. Still, like many people, I regularly worry about the collapse of the honey bee population, since, apart from producing honey and wax, they are clearly very important for fertilizing a large proportion of our crops and wild plants. These regular worries are caused by alarming news articles such as:

However, last week I read an article that contradicted all that:

When faced with completely contradictory information, I do what I usually do: Check the underlying data, and try to figure out what is going on beyond the hype.

First a little bit of background on the honey bee (genus Apis). It is a social insect that establishes large colonies containing tens of thousands of bees in perennial nests. Each colony contains one female queen who lays all the eggs (more than a thousand per day), a small group of male drones, with some of whom the queen mates with once (after which the drones die or get expulsed), and a large number of female worker bees, taking care of everything else from construction, cleaning, cooling and warming of the nest to foraging and feeding of the young.

Honey bees have been valued and kept by beekeepers for millennia. They are considered a livestock with three main economic benefits: honey, wax, and pollination services. They are native to the Old World (Africa, Asia and Europe), but were introduced to the Americas by settlers, and now exist almost everywhere in the World, except the very coldest and very hottest regions of the planet. Most live in managed colonies, but some also live in a feral state.

Now to the data: In the case of honey bees, there is really only one source of data and that is the FAO statistics meticulously compiled on the number of beehives in each country since 1961 (see The number of beehives is found under “Live Animals.” There is some missing or incomplete information in this data base. For example, the series from the USSR split into many new countries between 1991 and 1992, but some of the former Soviet Union countries never started reporting (e.g. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan). Bolivia, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Oman, Tuvalo and the UK discontinued reporting and are no longer counted in the aggregate numbers. A few countries have joined the statistics after 1961 (Montenegro, Myanmar, Oman, and Puerto Rico) and some countries never appear even once (e.g. Denmark, Greenland, Guinea, Fiji, and Occupied Palestinian Territory). While the FAO database may have its flaws, it is by far the best time series honey bee count that exists in the world.

According to the FAO data, the number of honey beehives in the world is at an all-time high around 80 million in 2013, up from around 50 million in 1961. Most (44%) of all honey beehives are found in Asia, where they have increased steadily from 10.7 million in 1961 to 35.7 million in 2013. Africa and Europe are each home to about 21% of the world’s honey bees, while the Americas have about 14% and Oceania only 1% (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Number of honey beehives in the World, by region, 1961-2013

Source: Author’s elaboration based on data from FAOSTAT

According to the FAO data, the only time there was a noticeable drop in the world honey bee population was in 1992. This event is almost entirely limited to Eastern Europe, so it is possible that the apparent drop has more to do with the breakup of the Soviet Union, and changes in reporting, than to a significant reduction in honey bee numbers. 1991 was the last year that the USSR reported honeybee hive numbers, and some of the former Soviet Union countries never started reporting (e.g. Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan).

So why all the fuss about honey bee extinction now when honey bee populations seem to be at an all-time high?

That is an interesting paradox, so it is worth trying to understand the reasons behind the alarming honey bee headlines.

First and foremost, I think the alarmism is mainly driven by the media in the United States, and there does indeed seem to be a honey bee crisis there, although it is not a recent crisis. There is a lot of variation in honey bee populations at the country level, and the United States is one of the few main honey bee producers that have seen significant declines in stocks between 1961 and 2013.

Figure 2 shows all the major honey bee countries in the World (“major” being defined as any country that at some point since 1961 had more than 2 million beehives). While there is an upward trend for most countries, the United States is an exception, with the number of honey beehives falling by 53% from 5.5 million in 1961 to 2.6 million in 2013. In contrast, during the same time, the number of honey beehives has increased by 132% in India, 178% in China, 347% in Turkey, 119% in Ethiopia, 814% in Iran, 357% in Argentina, 409% in Tanzania,  234% in Spain, -3% in Mexico, 1462% in South Korea, 260% in Kenya, and 25% in Poland. Constituting another exception to the general upward trend, the USSR, and later Russia, saw downward trends during the two sub-periods reported.

The honey bee stock in the United States reached a low point in 2007, with only 2.3 million hives, but has been recovering slightly since then (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Number of honey beehives in major honey bee countries, 1961-2013

Grafica lykkeSource: Author’s elaboration based on data from FAOSTAT


A United States bias, however, would certainly not warrant headlines like “A world without bees: The price we will pay if we don’t figure out what is killing the honey bee” (Time Magazine, August 2013) or “Why Honey Bee Extinction Would Mean the End of Humanity” (ScienceABC, 2015).

While there may be local, temporary problems with honey bee populations in individual countries, there is certainly no global honey bee apocalypse going on.

I would have liked to finish this blog with a plausible explanation of why there is still such a hype around honey bee extinction, but that would have made the blog too long and polemic. Suffice it to say that whenever faced with news about impending environmental apocalypses, it is more important than ever to be skeptical and check the underlying data.


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