Colony Collapse Disorder: A nuisance, not a catastrophe

CCD was first identified in 2006, and by the end of that year the number of producing colonies had fallen barely 1%. In 2007, beekeepers had increased their colonies by more than 2%, ending the year with more than in 2005 – the last year prior to the CCD outbreak. So this year’s 6% decline – see the USDA’s just released 2008 Honey Report – isn’t very alarming. If honeybees really were threatened with extinction, as some of the more shrill coverage suggests, we would have seen severe declines in 2006 and 2007. For some perspective, I’ve summarized USDA data going back to 2005 in the table below.


US Honeybee Colonies And Honey Production
Year Production (millions) Producing Colonies Yield
2005 174 lb (79 kg) 2.41 million 72.4 lb (32.8 kg)
2006 155 lb (70 kg) 2.39 million 64.7 lb (29.3 kg)
2007 148 lb (67 kg) 2.44 million 60.8 lb (27.6 kg)
2008 161 lb (73 kg) 2.30 million 69.9 lb (31.7 kg)

As long as CCD is still afflicting honeybee colonies (it is), and as long as we don’t know why (we don’t), then it’s a concern. But it’s no more worrying than the other difficulties facing bees and their keepers (disease, pests, weather, and so forth).

Fewer honeybees but more honey in 2008

The latest Honey Report paints a good news – bad news picture of 2008. While the number of producing honeybee colonies fell by 6% to 2.3 million, honey production rose 8% to 161 million pounds (73 million kg). Why did honey production increase when the number colonies fell? Because the honeybees were much more productive – yield per colony soared by 15% to 69.9 lb (31.7 kg).

Honey prices up, inventories down

Honey inventory has been falling for years, and 2008 was no exception. Producer honey stocks fell by 4% to 50.4 million pounds (22.9 million kg). If you make mead and buy honey, like I do, then you already know that honey prices surged last year. Now the USDA has put a number on it: The “all honey” price rose 31% to $1.41/lb. I don’t know what will happen to honey prices, but I’ll be keeping my eye on them. And publishing updated price reports as the year unfolds – watch for them.



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13 thoughts on “Colony Collapse Disorder: A nuisance, not a catastrophe

  1. Ken

    I think this is a misguided judgment on CCD based on a set of very
    misleading numbers from the USDA.

    The problem with viewing CCD impact solely on the basis of USDA numbers of producing colonies and/or honey production is that beekeepers, especially those involved commercially (those that are actually represented in the count), will go to great lengths and great costs to replace a colony that has been killed off by either CCD, Varroa or other causes. Static numbers do not mean that CCD is not decimating beekeepers. Think of it this way: if U-Haul was having 38% of its trucks totaled each year, but spending the money required to replace them, the size of their fleet would appear on paper (based on sheer numbers) to remain stable year on year. But the cost would be tremendous, and U-Haul could not sustain losses like that for long. That is the condition that has faces beekeepers.

    The US beekeeping community lost 750,000 to 1 million colonies over the 2007/207 winter. That’s tens of trillions of bees. Up to 60% of those losses may have been the result of CCD. Bees are being imported from overseas now to replace those that can no longer be replaced by domestic bee sources. The cost of replacing bees continues to rise, and the number of beekeepers continues to fall, as those who can no longer afford to replace their lost colonies leave the business.

    see: http://maarec.cas.psu.edu/CCDPpt/CSIonCCDMar09.pdf

    see: http://www.thedailygreen.com/environmental-news/blogs/bees/colony-collapse-disorder-88021704

    Washington Winemaker, if you lost 95% of your vines in three weeks, I’d consider that a catastrophe for you, and not be making glib comments calling that “a nuisance.” Similarly, if the wine industry had to sustain a loss of 38% of all producing vines for two years in a row, I would think it extremely callous of beekeepers to be dismissive of their misfortune.

  2. Erroll Post author

    if you lost 95% of your vines in three weeks, I’d consider that a catastrophe for you, and not be making glib comments calling that “a nuisance.” Similarly, if the wine industry had to sustain a loss of 38% of all producing vines for two years in a row, I would think it extremely callous of beekeepers to be dismissive of their misfortune.

    Calling Colony Collapse Disorder a nuisance wasn’t meant to be glib or dismissive of beekeepers’ troubles, and I’m sorry if that’s the way it came across. I was taking aim at language like “extinction” or “wipe out” that I see a lot of. So I wanted to find a word that contrasted with that language and meant something like “solvable problem.”

    Were you mainly concerned with my choice of words, or do you think that honeybees are becoming extinct?

    Much of what you say has to do with added cost to beekeepers. As I mentioned in the rec.crafts.meadmaking thread, I think your (that was you, wasn’t it?) analogies to unrelated industries (truck rental, grape growing) are poor. It makes no more sense to use colony loss rates in truck depreciation schedules than it does to substitute truck maintainence costs for the cost of treating and feeding a honeybee colony. We can both agree that beekeepers’ costs have risen, but you didn’t explicitly make a “therefore” statement.

    Do you think the higher cost will make all beekeeping unprofitable, and without their keepers bees will die out? If so, we disagree on the economics of CCD. Farmers, then consumers, will absorb the added costs of maintaining sufficient honeybees to pollinate our crops.

    Do you think honeybees are dying out and no amount of effort will save them? In that case, wouldn’t we see it in the USDA’s colony numbers eventually? How long do you think it will take before we see large declines in the number of producing colonies?

    For my part, each year that goes by without a significant decline in the colony count makes me more confident that the bees are here to stay.

  3. John

    Erroll,
    I hope you will indulge me chiming in here. I have the utmost respect for you and enjoy reading your blog every day – even the entries I don’t find pertinent to my particular winemaking focus at the moment like this one on CCD. To have someone come in and make comments like Ken did, spewing his vitriol at you for some unseen personal agenda (and it is clear that his comment was fueled by something other than sharing an opinion), is contrary to the intent of your blog space, I think. Let him take his pugnacious arguments to another website! I come to your blog space to learn about your experiences in making wine, not to hear arguments and disputations on subjects irrelevant (except perhaps as a curiosity) to winemaking. If he has a different point of view from you (and we all do eventually, as we can’t agree on everything all the time), let him start up his own blog space and tout his own opinions thereon! I am not saying that I am against open discussion and free interplay of ideas, though. Rather, I am saying that there is no room for rudeness in that interplay, and I find his comments to be rude and uncalled for. Ken, take your belligerence elsewhere, sir. Because I don’t like it here. If you have a real point to make, then make it concisely and clearly, but don’t resort to using rude and abrasive language against this site’s host. I think you will find no audience here for that!

  4. John

    Yes; I’m aware that, “Because I don’t like it here,” is a sentence fragment, and I don’t care. My point was made all the same. :-)

    Erroll, keep up the good work. Thank you for your continued efforts on your blog!

  5. Erroll Post author

    Hi John,

    I sensed some anger in Ken too, and all of us get angry from time to time. For me the question is why? If he’s angry at my hypothesis, that CCD has been exaggerated and colony counts are evidence that bees are not “being wiped out,” then he and I probably don’t have much to talk about. I might be mistaken, but if I am it’s an honest mistake.

    If he’s angry because he thinks I’ve belittled beekeepers or kicked them when they’re down, well it wouldn’t be the first time people have misunderstood each other.

    CCD interests me because I make mead and buy honey. If you’ve never made mead, I encourage you to try it. It can be similar enough to wine, if you choose to make it that way (see here for some thoughts on different styles of mead), that you’ll probably like it. It will be different enough to be interesting and new. Even if you don’t give mead a try, I hope my posts on it and CCD don’t drive you away!

    Erroll

  6. John

    Oh; not at all! I tried to communicate too much in my previous post, so my focus got blurred a bit, but I attempted to say that I find all your posts interesting – even if I don’t find them all necessarily pertinent to my current winemaking focus. Having said that, I must admit that your advice on homemade vs. commercial mead got me interested in making one of my own, so I actually have my first batch of vanilla mead going now (technically, I guess it’s no longer a mead, though, but a methyglyn). It is totally dry now, so I’m gonna have to reference my notes from you about sweetening wine. That won’t be for several more weeks or months, I guess. My airlock is still bubbling away (albeit quite slowly) in spite of a < 0.95 S.G. reading, so I’m going to let it come to a complete stop before moving to the next step.

    Anyway, I am not put off by anything you have said thus far. My only complaint last post was against this Ken character shooting off at the lip for no apparent reason save venting his spleen unnecessarily in a forum where he will be met with little to no sympathy. Rather foolish, I think. Don’t get me wrong; if there is a problem with the bees and an industry is struggling as a result, I am sympathetic to THAT, but not to his hidden agenda or his bringing up a “score” he feels he needs to settle in your blog space. I hope I communicated THAT well enough last time to not have to repeat it now.

    Keep up the good work, Erroll.

  7. Erroll Post author

    Keep up the good work, Erroll

    Thanks John,

    Keep me posted on your mead. I haven’t used vanilla yet, but I’m curious about it. I just bottled a plain dry mead that I had oaked, I wrote about it in one of my earliest posts, and I really like it.

    Erroll

  8. John

    I’m curious: How long did your mead sit on oak chips? Also, what type of oak did you decide on? I got that sampler of oak chips you mentioned several months ago (I think that was you…) and I have yet to use any of it. Maybe this is a good opportunity to do so… I don’t know if the oak flavor would mess with the vanilla extract’s delicate note, though, so I’m a little nervous about it. Any thoughts?

  9. Erroll Post author

    Hi John,

    I did write about the free sampler, so maybe you did hear about it from me. I’d use oak in one batch and vanilla in another. That way, you can compare the two. Once you know how they taste on there own, you’ll have a better idea of a how a combination will taste – and if you’ll like it.

    I wrote about oaking that mead here. It was before I knew about the free samples, so I just bought American oak chips at a local homebrew shop. I used a small amount, about 1.3 g/L, for a long time (over a year).

    An oak barrel will do more than just impart flavor to wine or mead. The mead will pick up tannin from the oak, if you give it enough time, and a tiny amount of oxygen. We can’t duplicate the slow oxygen pickup with oak chips, but I wanted to try and extract tannin from the oak. I’m happy with the result, but it’s hard to know how successful I was because I didn’t split the batch and oak half of it in the standard way. Maybe I’ll do that next time, so I can compare the two approaches.

    Erroll

  10. John

    That’s all fine and good, and I will take your suggestions to heart. One thing, though: I added the vanilla extract to the must from the outset of fermentation, so I can’t do one with oak and the other with vanilla. Any reason to be concerned with oaking a vanilla batch?

    – John

  11. Erroll Post author

    The oak won’t react badly with vanilla, or anything like that. If you added too much vanilla, adding oak could amplify the problem. That’s because oak contributes vanillin, which is the dominant flavor compound in vanilla. In fact, “imitation vanilla extract” is vanillin.

    So if you want to try it, and you’re sure you didn’t add too much vanilla, go ahead!

    Erroll

  12. Ken

    John,

    I have made a serious effort to gain an understanding of the nature of CCD and its impact on the nation’s beekeepers. Other than the fact that I dispute some of Errol’s propositions, I used the terms “misguided” and “glib” to describe Errol’s comments, and “extremely callous” to describe the way they might be perceived by someone deeply concerned about beekeepers and beekeeping. That was, unfortunately, how I interpreted Errol’s phrase, “this year’s 6% decline – see the USDA’s just released 2008 Honey Report – isn’t very alarming.” Please forgive me if the terms offended you. In retrospect, “extremely callous” does seem a bit hyperbolic. One would hope that Errol was game for comments on his posts, though, since the format of the blog allows them. When Errol described CCD as a nuisance, he (obviously) touched a nerve. Having studied and spoken with family businesses that have lost two thirds of their colonies in one winter, catastrophe feels to me like the only appropriate term for their experiences. That nerve was pretty well exposed. Errol did not know he was throwing gasoline on a fire, and that’s (again, obviously) not what he intended, but that’s how it came across. Errol’s phrase “it’s no more worrying than the other difficulties facing bees and their keepers,” came off to me as both inaccurate and (albeit inadvertently) dismissive, and that set me on edge.

    Errol and I have, I think, reached a degree of truce on this in other fora. That is for the good.

    I would urge you to look into the depth of information available on CCD. My hope is that those who genuinely seek to understand CCD will arm themselves with a set of information beyond just the USDA’s colony numbers. I’d be happy to lead you to numerous resources, if you would like references. A good start is at http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=saving-the-honeybee

    Take a moment to reflect on how this condition might affect mead making over the next 5 or 10 years, in terms of the cost and variety of honey available to us. Its impact is reflected today in the 31% rise in honey prices noted above. My interest is in promoting comprehensive information on the subject, and not in argumentative confrontation. Please understand that my passion is on behalf of mead making, and the bees and beekeepers who make it possible. They are our lifeblood. Many are struggling for their beekeeping lives, hundreds of others have already lost the battle, and my plea is for compassion on their behalf.

    Ken Schramm
    The Compleat Meadmaker
    Troy, MI

  13. John

    Ken,

    Thank you for explaining yourself! I agree that to those few (?) who have lost a lot of their livelihoods to CCD the situation is disastrous – and my heart goes out to them – but on the flip side of that coin I can plainly see that to the overall beekeeping world, CCD might (and I emphasize that word) be a mere nuisance. In other words, I can see both sides here. My only issue with you before was the seeming inappropriateness of your comments in a blog space, the focus of which – format aside – is wine and mead making. I didn’t (and don’t) come here to observe pugnacity or to hear others’ arguments. My focus when I visit this site is to glean from the experiences of a winemaker I have come to admire.

    Again, thank you for explaining yourself. I have a better understanding now of a problem I would otherwise be ignorant of had it not been for this debate.

    Cheers!

    – John

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