The Bees are Fine

My favourite line from one of my favourite movies was spoken by Peter Fonda, playing Ulee Jackson in a film about a Florida beekeeper. When Ulee visits his son, who is in prison for robbery, the son asks about the bees. Ulee answers, ‘Mites are choking them, pesticides are killing them, the drought’s starving them… they’re fine.’ That line contributed to Fonda’s Oscar nomination for best actor in 1997, which he narrowly lost to his friend Jack Nicholson.

The bees are fine. Honey bees, long rumoured to be dropping like flies towards extinction, are doing as well as cows, sheep, and other livestock. To maintain livestock in their current numbers, humans manage animal diseases and pests, supply food in times of famine, and control the beasts’ reproduction. For bee farmers, that means a lot of expense. Dead colonies are replaced by raising new queens and dividing strong colonies into multiple offspring. This allows bee losses to be replaced and total colony counts to increase, as it has been doing worldwide for years.

Although managed honey bee colonies die off at a higher rate than we were accustomed to a generation ago, today’s one-third annual loss is still better than the survival rate of untended wild colonies, which have a first-year death rate of 77%, and a second-year of 16% (Seeley, 2017). Feral colonies don’t survive well, but we expect much more from our boxed ones.

As if to confirm the striking success of managed honey bee colonies, Statistics Canada has just released its annual summary of Canadian honey crop production and honey bee populations. First, according to official counts, Canadians have never kept this many honey bee colonies. We are now at 810,000 colonies, managed by 13,000 beekeepers – up 40,000 colonies from 2020.

The value of honey produced (over one-quarter of a billion dollars) has also never been higher. If you do the mental math, you’ll see that the “average” honey income per beekeeper is a bit over $20,000. You may wonder how beekeepers buy all those trucks and supers – and feed and clothe their flock of young’ns – on $20,000. Well, most beekeepers (95%) are hobbyists who crank their extractor a few times and sling out five hundred dollars in honey money. A small minority of Canada’s beekeepers are commercial and in the business like a bad marriage – it’s all they know and it’s too expensive to get out. That small minority grosses an average of $400,000 in honey sales. It still doesn’t leave much to live on after trucks, supers, equipment, buildings, feed, medicines, and trips to Vegas are factored in. But that’s a story for another day.

Meanwhile, here’s a chart I made from the StatsCanada data. This graph looks back to 1924, when Canadians owned fewer than 300,000 honey bee colonies. Since then, we’ve almost tripled that number.

About Ron Miksha

Ron Miksha is a bee ecologist working at the University of Calgary. He is also a geophysicist and does a bit of science writing and blogging. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and Earth scientist. (Ask him about seismic waves.) He's based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.
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7 Responses to The Bees are Fine

  1. avwalters says:

    One of my favorite movies, and the one that inspired me to take the plunge and get bees. My grandfather was a beekeeper, and I always wanted to be. But my first husband responded with horror. (Well that finished, soon enough.) Thanks for the reminder.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ron Miksha says:

      It was a great movie – and one of the few to show beekeeping in its gritty reality. It also demonstrates the tenacity of beekeepers and their determination to keep colonies alive and counts expanding. You will remember that the final scenes show Ulee in his shop, making new equipment so that he would be able to have more bees, allowing his son to join him in the little business.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. “A first year death rate of 77%, and a second year death rate of 16%?” If that isn’t a great example of selection, I don’t know what is

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ron Miksha says:

      It might imply some evolutionary selection at work, but the study seemed to imply that first-year swarms are often too small, issued too late in the season, selected inappropriate domiciles, or succumbed to other events less likely to affect established (second-year) colonies.

      Liked by 1 person

      • If you’re referring to Seeley’s data, try to imagine how he could possibly come up with those numbers. Does anyone actually think he was able to follow so many swarms, and find where they issued too (in a forest!)? When I asked him at a speaking engagement a few years ago, he couldn’t give me a clear answer. Then quickly changed the subject. My own experience with atleast 1000 swarms is that those numbers are off.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Ron Miksha says:

    Thanks. Yes, these data are from Dr. Seeley. Some people would suggest that they are a great example of selection at work. I think they point to stochastic affects instead. The numbers are from Seeley’s 2019 book, Lives of Bees, Chapter 7. These are from his 2003 records, but the survival rates are not markedly different from the 142 data points he had in his pre-varroa (1978) paper. In total, he probably did not investigate the 1000 or more swarms which you examined.
    Are Seeley’s numbers off by a lot, or a little, from your experience? What survival rates did you record? I’d like to report accurate numbers on my blog. Thanks for your help.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The 1000 (give or take) swarms I’m speaking of are over the past 12 seasons. I’ve never kept meticulous records on swarm survival. There’s so much to say, I’m having a hard time knowing where to start. First, it’s very common for an early swarm to build up and swarm multiple times. So, one “swarm” can become 3 “colonies” easily. Also, yes, the survival “rate” of all of these swarms swings wildly, depending on myriad variables. In my experience, bees that I relocate to standard equipment do not do as well as bees that move into walls and trees (even later in the season). They seem to always be there the next spring for me to remove at homeowners’ request. If I had to venture a guess at the average survival rate of new unmanaged colonies (swarms) in my area, I would say firmly 50-55%. I don’t believe “accurate” numbers exist since there are so many variables.

      Liked by 2 people

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