Don’t Bee-lieve Fearmongering about A ‘Beepocalypse’

Washington Post finds honeybee colonies hit 20-year high thanks to free market beekeepers.

Fear often trumps facts in media coverage. The past several years of worries about dying colonies of bees was certainly no exception, but The Washington Post recently supplied some much-needed sting to the honeybee situation.

News media scare stories about bee deaths and the label that came to describe the occurrence -- Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) -- have dominated the news. Magazines, broadcast networks and left-wing websites blamed bee deaths on a host of factors, including cell phones, pesticides, mites and fungi. Oh, and global warming, of course.

Hype was rampant.

Time magazine warned of “Beepocalypse” in 2013, claiming the “economic and environmental damage could be immense.” In that story Time’s resident climate alarmist Bryan Walsh cautioned that if CCD continued it could there could be “dire” consequences -- “even for our ability to feed ourselves.” NBC referred to the die-offs as almost a “natural disaster” and ABC worried that it could cause ice cream to “disappear.”

In one classic case of a story headline saying one thing, while the body of the story contradicted that message ABC News’ website reported in 2011 that a Swiss researcher thought electromagnetic waves from cell phones could be harming honeybees. Later in the story, ABC said experts explained “this is likely not the case.”

Many of those stories ignored the fact that honeybee deaths weren’t a new phenomenon at all. Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish economist, wrote that a 19th century beekeeper documented a honeybee die off in 1853. Other die offs in 1891 and 1896 were attributed to “May Disease.”

“In the 1960s, bees vanished mysteriously in Texas, Louisiana and California. In 1975, a similar epidemic cropped up in Australia, Mexico and 27 U.S. states,” Lomborg wrote. “There were heavy losses in France from 1998 to 2000 and also in California in 2005” before CCD was diagnosed.

That wasn’t the only fact many media outlets had ignored in favor of alarmism. They forgot the idea of the free market.

On July 23, 2015, The Washington Post reported statistics that would surprise anyone listening to the bee-maggedon reporting: “The number of honeybee colonies has actually risen since 2006 [when Colony Collapse Disorder was named], from 2.4 million to 2.7 million in 2014, according to data tracked by the USDA.”

Managed colonies, those that produce commercial honey under beekeepers’ care, are the highest number in 20 years, Christopher Ingraham wrote for the Post’s Wonkblog. He cited a 2012 paper by two agricultural economists as well, that said there have always been “seasonal die-offs” of bees, just not at the same rate as recent years.

How has that happened if almost one-third of colonies die annually? Beekeepers have adapted in order to keep making money renting out their colonies for pollination to farmers anxious to produce crops. Those economists indicated the colony increases were a triumph of the free market.

“Beekeepers have been doing this sort of thing since the advent of commercial beekeeping. When CCD came along, it roughly doubled the usual annual rate of bee die-offs. But this doesn't mean that bees are going extinct, just that beekeepers need to work a little harder to keep production up,” Ingraham wrote. The cost of that extra work is being passed on, but he pointed out that “rising prices for fruit and nuts hardly constitute the ‘beepocalypse’ that we’ve all been worried about.”

Although the Post focused solely on U.S. honeybee colony increases, that trend was being repeated in other parts of the world. An industry group uploaded government data from USDA and other agencies to The data showed Canadian honeybee colonies grew by 17 percent from 2009 to 2014, and that European Union’s beehives were rebounding again in the four years leading up the EU’s 2013 ban on popular and useful pesticides knowns as neocontinoids (nicknamed neonics). In fact, the EU colonies were well ahead of 1995 levels by that time.

Media fear and junk science helped promote pesticide regulations

In 2013, the EU banned neonics pesticides based on fear that they could be contributing to bee fatalities. In 2015, the EPA called for new labeling of neonic pesticides as well.

According to science journalist and American Enterprise Institute visiting fellow Jon Entine, the media helped fuel calls for regulation against those pesticides. But as he pointed out in an op-ed at in 2013, if bee crises happened at least as far back as 1869, how could a variety of chemical pesticides introduced in the 1990s be responsible? Studies showing the threat of neonics exposed bees to far higher doses of the chemicals than they would be exposed to during pollination.

Canadian bee populations were “largely unaffected,” in spite of the use of neonics, Entine noted. Australian bee populations were also a “striking dilemma” for pesticide opponents.

Liberal magazine Mother Jones was still linking neonics to bee deaths as of July 2015, but adding the explanation that the culprit could be global warming.

Two months before the Post’s article about increased bee colonies, a contributor to said much the same thing.

In that op-ed, Hoover Institution fellow Henry I. Miller criticized the media’s fear-mongering, the regulators’ reactions and brought up the government data “hidden in plain sight” about rising honeybee colony counts in his column for Forbes. He also noted that the EU had backpedalled, claiming the neonics ban “was at no time based on a direct link on bee mortality.” 

— Julia A. Seymour is Assistant Managing Editor for MRC Business at the Media Research Center. Follow Julia A. Seymour on Twitter.