Are Honeybees Endangered?

Close up of honey bees in Australia

Soteavy Som / Getty Images

Honeybees are not endangered, mainly because they are globally distributed and primarily managed by beekeepers. These important pollinators aren’t actually native to the United States; they were brought over from Europe by colonizers in the 17th century to use for honey and beeswax. Eventually, some of the managed bees escaped and formed wild honeybee colonies, but the majority of honeybees in North America are still managed by humans.

Archaeologists have found traces of beeswax on ancient pottery in what is now Turkey, suggesting that humans have been keeping honeybees for nearly 9,000 years. Experts believe that farmers may have first domesticated wild bees to gather honey and wax for medicines and food, since evidence of beekeeping was later found throughout Europe and North Africa near early agricultural sites.

Close up of honey bee colony in a hive
Ed Peeters / Getty Images

While they are not native to North America, managed honeybees play a large role in the nation’s food production. Today, honeybees increase United States crop values by more than $15 billion each year, and a single colony gathers about 40 pounds of pollen and 265 pounds of nectar annually. In 2019, the USDA reported just over 2.8 million honey producing colonies in the country making almost 157 million pounds of honey.

Because honeybee colonies fluctuate, it's hard to pinpoint exact population numbers. Queens usually live between two and three years, and rarely more than five years. Workers typically only live a few weeks to a few months, while male drones live between four and eight weeks. Each colony typically consists of a single reproductive queen, anywhere from 20,000 to 60,000 adult worker bees, and 10,000 to 30,000 eggs, larvae, and pupae. The queen and 8,000 to 15,000 adult workers hibernate in winter, feeding solely on honey collected during the summer months.

Colony Collapse Disorder

Honeybee loss in the winter is typical, but in 2006, a number of beekeepers began reporting unusually high mortalities of 30% to 70% of their hives — about 50% of which demonstrated symptoms inconsistent with any known cause of honeybee death at the time. A honeybee colony is a finely tuned ecosystem, and without an appropriate number of worker bees, entire hives die off, a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder. Potential causes were debated, with pesticides representing a primary concern; later on, viruses, invasive mites, and the climate crisis were all considered as well. Since 2006, winter losses of managed colonies in the U.S. have averaged 28.7%, almost double the historic rate of 15%.

Threats

Managed honeybees are instrumental in pollination, especially in the United States, but studies show that they can’t do it alone. In more than 40 significant crops grown worldwide, wild native pollinators improved pollination efficiency and increased fruit set by twice that facilitated by honeybees, according to a study published in Science. Some experts are concerned that poorly managed beekeeping could threaten wild native bee species, since managed honeybees often compete with wild bees within the same habitats.

Although honeybees are highly managed and not endangered, they still represent one of the world’s most widespread and important pollinators, contributing to both agriculture and wild ecosystems. Any number of factors can negatively influence the delicate balance of a honeybee hive, such as disease, mites, irresponsible pesticide use, and habitat loss.

Mites

Bee colony infested with Varroa Honey Bee Mites -Varroa destructor, syn. Jacobsoni-, mite on a newly emerged, deformed Bee -Apis mellifera var carnica-, next to dead larvae, Bavaria, Germany
Varroa destructor on a newly emerged deformed bee, next to dead larvae, in an infested colony. Horst Sollinger / Getty Images

Mites are a type of microscopic parasite that attacks and feeds on bees. Some species of bee are particularly threatened by a distinct type of mite, which can cause the complete destruction of entire colonies. For the honeybee, the Varroa mite represents one of the biggest (if not the biggest) threats to the species.

Also known as Varroa destructor, this insect-like organism attaches to the body of the bee and larvae, feeding on fat body tissue and weakening the immune system. In their weakened state, the bees become less efficient in pesticide detoxification and more susceptible to viruses.

Disease

Most of the common honeybee diseases are highly contagious, meaning just one can wipe out an entire colony with ease. Bee diseases can also be spread from one species of bee to another, since their habitats overlap so frequently, particularly dangerous for native, wild bees more threatened than the honeybee.

Widespread disease may also be a consequence of poor bee management if hives become overcrowded or have poor nutrition. Scientific studies have even argued that honeybee losses aren’t a conservation problem, but rather a domesticated animal management issue.

Pesticides

Neonicotinoids, a type of insecticide used on farms and in urban landscapes, are absorbed by plants and can harm bees through their presence in pollen or nectar. The chemical can stay in the soil for months or years after just one application. According to research by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, neonicotinoid residues were found in woody plants up to six years after initial application, while untreated plants have been found to absorb the residues of certain neonicotinoids applied to soil in the previous year.

Studies on the effects of insecticides have shown that even if field-realistic levels of insecticides in nectar have no lethal effects on an individual honeybee’s direct health, it can reduce its expected performance between 6% and 20%. As one of the most widely used pesticides in the United States, neonicotinoids are extensively studied, and in 2016, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service phased out all use of these types of chemicals on national wildlife refuges.

Honey bee with pollen
Claudio Cavalensi / Getty Images

Habitat Loss

Habitat loss is a concern for all pollinators, including honeybees. As development persists in wild areas, it leaves less room for the flowers and plants that bees need to survive. Since crop pollination is largely dependent on wild pollinators as well as managed honeybees, incorporating native biodiversity can help stabilize the ecosystem against habitat loss resulting from environmental change and climate change.

Why Are Honeybees Important?

According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services Assessment Report on Pollinators, Pollination and Food Production, almost 90% of wild flowering plants and 75% of food crops depend on animal pollinators; these plants create resources for food sources and habitats for a wide range of other species. Honey production itself provides an important source of income for many rural communities as well. Globally, there are 81 million honeybee hives producing 1.6 million tons of honey each year.

What We Can Do

Planting native, bee-friendly flowers and plants in your home garden is a great way to help support your local honeybees — especially if you live in an area with few agricultural crops. The pollinator partnership has an online tool where users can search for Ecoregional Planting Guides according to their zip code. Similarly, support your area's beekeepers by purchasing locally sourced raw honey rather than imported honey (which can sometimes be manipulated to give it a longer shelf life). Plus, the flavor will reflect the local flora and you’ll reap all the delicious health benefits.

Honeybees have barbed stingers, so they die after they’ve stung. Be sure not to antagonize or harass honeybees and never attempt to remove a hive on your own unless you are an experienced beekeeper. If you have an unwanted hive near your property, contact a local beekeeper or bee rescuer to remove and relocate the bees humanely.

View Article Sources
  1. Nieto, Ana, et al. "European Red List of Bees." The European Commission, 2016, doi.10.2779/77003

  2. Roffet-Salque, Mélanie, et al. "Widespread Exploitation of the Honeybee by Early Neolithic Farmers." Nature, vol. 527, no. 7577, 2015, pp. 226-230, doi:10.1038/nature15757

  3. "Are honey bees native to North America?" USGS.

  4. "Honey." USDA, 2020.

  5. Hammond, George, and Blankenship, Madison. "Apis mellifera honey bee." Animal Diversity Web.

  6. Martin, Stephen J. "The Role of Varroa and Viral Pathogens in the Collapse of Honeybee Colonies: A Modelling Approach." Journal 0f Applied Ecology, vol. 38, no. 5, 2001, pp. 1082-1093, doi:10.1046/j.1365-2664.2001.00662.x

  7. Burkle, Laura A., et al. "Plant-Pollinator Interactions over 120 Years: Loss of Species, Co-Occurrence, and Function." Science, 2013, vol. 339, no. 6127, pp. 1611-1615, doi:10.1126/science.1232728

  8. Stokstad, Erik. "Breeders Toughen Up Bees to Resist Deadly Mites." Science, 2019, doi:10.1126/science.aay8677

  9. Ramsey, Samuel D., et al. "Varroa Destructor Feeds Primarily on Honey Bee Fat Body Tissue and Not Hemolymph." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 116, no. 5, 2019, pp. 1792-1801, doi:10.1073/pnas.1818371116

  10. Colla, Sheila R., and J. Scott MacIvor. "Questioning Public Perception, Conservation Policy, and Recovery Actions for Honeybees in North America." Conservation Biology, vol. 31, no. 5, 2017, pp. 1202-1204, doi:10.1111/cobi.12839

  11. "How Neonicotinoids Can Kill Bees" XERCES SOCIETY.

  12. Cresswell, James E. "A Meta-Analysis of Experiments Testing the Effects of A Neonicotinoid Insecticide (Imidacloprid) on Honey Bees." Ecotoxicology, vol. 20, no. 1, 2010, pp. 149-157, doi:10.1007/s10646-010-0566-0