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How are the bees doing, really? Maybe better than you think

While several species of wild, native bees landed on the Endangered Species list last month, the commercial bee industry is doing just fine.

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    A beekeeper in Langley, Wash., pulls frames from a box to check honey and larvae production in this 2015 photo. While several wild bee species have been flagged as endangered species, national honeybee colony numbers remain steady.
    Dean Fosdick/AP/File
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The nation’s bees may be better off than you think, but that doesn’t mean they’re not facing a handful of challenges.

Several species of bees native to Hawaii landed on the Endangered Species list last month, prompting many to worry if the vital pollinators were headed toward extinction. A USDA report on commercial honeybees, the kind that's likely to come to mind first, indicates that colonies across the United States continue to thrive, with their numbers hovering around 2.66 million in 2015. While that’s a drop from the 2.74 million colonies counted in 2014, it’s much higher than the severe decrease researchers saw in 2006, when colony collapses were first charted with significance.

Honey bees are not about to go extinct,” Kim Kaplan, a researcher with the USDA, said in an email to The Washington Post.

That's likely true, but understanding the status of the nation’s wild bees, and the what’s really going on behind the honeybee’s numbers, requires a more nuanced approach.

“The USDA report is basically saying there’s more honey bee colonies now [than in 2006],” Joshua Campbell, a researcher at the University of Florida who focuses on native bees, tells The Christian Science Monitor. “The reason I’d say that’s slightly misleading is that we have more colonies, but we have more colony loses per year.” 

The number of honeybee colonies has seen a spike, but many of those come from amateur backyard beekeepers, he said. While more colonies are cropping up, they’re also likely to die off from exposure to new pests and diseases. 

“In today’s world, it’s harder to keep colonies alive than it was 20 years ago,” Dr. Campbell says.

Those challenges became particularly pronounced in 2006 when entire colonies of worker bees began abandoning their hives as part of the phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder. For nearly a decade, colony losses over the winter amounted to 28.7 percent of all commercial hives. Losses are still high, but fewer of those losses have been linked the mysterious disorder and have been instead attributed to known causes, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Still, it’s primarily the beekeepers, rather than the honeybees as a whole, who feel the effects of these challenges. Breeding new colonies takes time and money, and colony collapses have caused the average price of honey to nearly double in the past decade.

Unpacking the report further, it’s important to note that the numbers also neglect to showcase how wild bee populations have changed. Commercial honeybees, which are really imported European honeybees, aren’t included in the nation’s 4,000 native bee species, all of which are left on their own to survive threats like habitat modification, pesticides, and an invasion of non-native species.

Many of these species live underground and lead solitary lives, unlike the commercial bees who have the support system of a hive and beekeeper. The Hawaii bees recently classified as endangered fall under this category, seeing a sharp decline in their numbers thanks to habitat destruction and crop dusting at the hands of humans as well as competition from nonnative insects who have invaded the island chain.

“Wild bees are definitely in trouble,” Campbell says. “I think it’s been overlooked.”

That’s in part because studying wild bees poses challenges to researchers. The vast number of species makes them difficult to research, and scientists don’t know what they need or how to go about facilitating population growth. What they do know is that unregulated pesticide use and habitat destruction are harming these populations. 

Those challenges don’t mean hope is lost for the bees. In Hawaii, researchers have made protecting the state’s pollinators a key goal, using the benefits that accompany an Endangered Species classification to garner funding and habitat protection laws for the vulnerable bees. One scientist even created an artificial nest to help the bees reproduce, protecting them from destructive ants who previously crawled into nests and ate the larvae.

By shining a spotlight on the all-important, often overlooked pollinators, that classification could have a positive impact on other vulnerable wild bee species, leading researchers to gain a better understanding of what protections the bees need.  

“I think in the coming years, you’re going to see a few more species added,” Campbell says. “That may affect how we spray pesticides, and how we modify the landscapes.”

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