Not long ago, chances were that any given honey jar sitting on a table or tucked away in a pantry here in the United States was locally produced. Now, after what has been a decidedly disastrous decade for the bee industry, that couldn't be any less true. "We've lost a lot of bees here in the U.S.," said Mark Jensen, a beekeeper from Montana who serves as the legislative chairman of the American Honey Producers Association. "And it's really affecting honey production."
Over the past 10 years, the United States has gone from producing more than half of all the honey it consumes to importing the vast majority, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Today, Americans eat about 400 million pounds of honey each year, roughly 350 million pounds of which is produced outside the country.
"This is an important industry with a rich history, but it's really been suffering," Jensen said in an interview Thursday morning. Honeybees have been dying at unprecedented rates. Just this past winter, about 40 percent of the honeybees in the country met their maker, marking the second-largest disappearance ever recorded.
Foreign sources of honey seem for the moment to be adequate, so we have enough of the sweet stuff to put in our tea, mix with our Greek yogurt and cook with overall. But the growing reliance on imported honey has raised concerns in recent years about the safety and purity of the honey supply — the European Union several years ago banned Indian honey, for instance, out of concern for unhealthy toxins in it. Some American honey producers have suspected that purportedly better-quality honey from a place such as Turkey, which is renowned for its honey prowess, isn't really Turkish honey. The United States has put high tariffs on Chinese honey, but China is thought to have gotten around them by exporting through other countries.
It's hard to say how much of this reflects genuine concerns about the quality of honey or, on the other hand, economic competitiveness. But there are other problems, too, with the disappearance of bees for our food supply. Bees are responsible for contributing about $15 billion each year in increased crop value, according to the USDA, thanks to their help in various aspects of the food industry. They are essential to the commercial production of almonds, tree nuts, berries, fruits and vegetables.
The collapse of the bee population this year is not, by itself, any kind of cataclysmic event. The dying of honeybees is a natural and generally acceptable phenomenon. The national honeybee population has always ebbed and flowed in response to changes in weather and environment.
"It's really important to understand that the actual number of bee colonies, which is counted each August, has remained constant," said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, who teaches entomology at the University of Maryland and studies bee populations. "Yes, bees are dying every year, but you have to distinguish between losses and declines. What's happening is it's becoming more expensive to maintain the current levels."
In other words, it's not that bees are going extinct. Rather, beekeepers are increasingly finding it harder to make ends meet.
"To be honest, some beekeepers are doing it out of love more than anything else," vanEngelsdorp said. "They're doing it because it's a family tradition, not because it makes a lot of business sense."
For nearly a decade running, the loss of honey bee colonies has exceeded what researchers view as an "acceptable" level, according to a new industry survey that vanEngelsdorp helped conduct and publish.
Part of the reason why bee colony loss, which first began to cause concern in 2006, when scientists noticed rapid rates of adult bee loss, has persisted over the years is that the problem cannot be pinned on any one single cause. The root of the issues, rather, appears to be the intersection of many things.
The leading cause of death is thought to be an Asian mite, especially among smaller beekeepers. But researchers also cite changing farming habits, which have favored soil-eroding crops such as soy bean, and increasing use of pesticides, both by beekeepers and farmers, as key contributors to bee die-offs.
Even the initial die-off in 2006, which is now thought to have been caused by a virus that no longer affects bee populations, still baffles much of the scientific community.
"We still don't understand why they [the bees] were so contagious to the virus," vanEngelsdorp said.
Jensen, along with AHPA President Darren Cox and other association members, is currently in Washington, asking for more money to study how to overcome the obstacles afflicting the bee industry.
"I can't tell you how important it is that we get more research dollars," Jensen said. "We need to study why bee deaths are rising, and we need more money to do it. Otherwise we won't increase forage or get rid of bee deaths."
We also might have to settle for foreign-made honey from here on out.