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Bees are doing just fine. Beekeepers, however, not so good

You’ve probably heard the bad news, by now, that bees were recently added to the endangered species list for the first time. But if you’re part of the 60 percent of people who share stories without actually reading them, you might have missed an important detail: namely, that the newly-endangered bees are a handful of relatively obscure species who live only in Hawaii.

The bees you’re more familiar with — the ones that buzz around your yard dipping into flowers, making honey, pollinating crops and generally keeping the world’s food supply from collapsing? Those bees are doing just fine, according to data released by the USDA this year.

In 2015, there were 2.66 million commercial honey-producing bee colonies in the United States. That’s down slightly from the 2.74 million colonies in 2014, which represented a two-decade high. The number of commercial bee colonies is still significantly higher than it was in 2006, when colony collapse disorder — the mass die-offs that began afflicting U.S. honeybee colonies — was first documented.

Those 2.66 million colonies represent a greater number than just about any year since the late 1990s. How’s that possible, considering all the die-offs we’ve been hearing about?

America’s beekeepers are busy at work managing their colonies and replacing the ones that die off. Beekeepers have a number of ways to replenish their stock: They can split one healthy colony into two. They can also breed their own queen bees, which can be sold to other keepers in need of a queen to start a new colony.

For the 2017 season, 3 pounds of bees plus a queen will set you back about $100 or so.

The thing is, all of this colony-splitting and queen-breeding takes time, money and effort. It means that the main effects of colony collapse disorder aren’t being felt by the bees themselves, but by the people who breed and manage them. Beekeeping is a business, after all.

“Honey bees are not about to go extinct,” Kim Kaplan, a researcher with the USDA, said in an email. “It is the beekeepers who are in danger, facing unsustainable economic losses.”

Wild bees face different difficulties. If those species suffer die-offs, there’s nobody around to breed new queens and help them recover.

The cost of those losses are currently getting passed on to the consumer. The average retail price of honey has roughly doubled since 2006, according to the National Honey Board. And pollination services, where keepers drive semi-trucks full of bees from farm to farm to pollinate crops, are getting more expensive too.

Of course, the discussion above only concerns commercial bees that are managed by humans and businesses. Wild bees — whether they’re honeybees, or one of our 4,000 other native bee species — face different difficulties. If those species suffer die-offs, there’s nobody around to breed new queens and help them recover. Wild bees are on their own.

Recent research has shown that the use of certain insecticides called neonicotinoids has been linked to declines in wild bee populations. But assessing the true magnitude of the effect is difficult, because it’s a lot harder to survey wild bee populations than domesticated ones.

For now, the placement of seven bee species into the Endangered Species List might be less of a sign that America’s bees are in dire straights, and more of an indicator that our other 3,993 bee species are probably doing fine.

By and large, our domesticated honey producers appear to be doing just fine too.

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