- - Monday, May 26, 2014

The hardy honeybees are back, having returned from dark and mysterious places in the imaginations of the environmentalists. The latest numbers from the Agriculture Department are a stinging rebuke to the doomsayers who spread hysterical tales of a mysterious apocalypse of beedom. In the latest annual survey, federal bee counters reported the lowest rate of over-the-winter bee losses in nearly a decade.

Beekeepers call a loss of 19 percent to the cold weather an acceptable mortality rate. The latest loss was not much higher at 23 percent, undercutting the dire storyline pushed by environmentalists that our fuzzy friends would be going the way of the dodo, the passenger pigeon and the dinosaurs unless farmers suspended the use of modern agricultural techniques.

Terms like “bee kill” in headlines screaming about the end of the honeybee were nearly all hype. The number of managed bee colonies in the United States actually rose by 100,000 hives from 2012 to 2013 and have remained fairly steady for the past 13 years. Domestic honey production continues to hum along in the 149 million pound range, while the market value of the sticky stuff has almost doubled. That’s certainly no collapse.

Confusion over how bees are really getting along is related to natural cycles. Winter bee-death figures don’t tell the whole story. Bees do perish in the winter, and the hive makes up losses in the spring when a queen bee will lay 1,000 to 2,000 eggs per day. Adult bees hatch in less than two weeks. In warm weather, they live only six weeks. Several generations of bees live and die in a single season. It’s the way of the bee world.

These numbers matter because the health of honeybees is the reason given by groups suing the Environmental Protection Agency to prohibit use of certain types of pesticides called neonicotinoids. Greens on the left accuse purveyors of these products of harming the health of bees, citing the usual array of junk science to stifle technological advance. More disinterested analyses point to the epidemic spread of the parasitic varroa mite, various other diseases and lack of forage for bees.

The European Union is always reluctant to get in the way of environmentalists with a complaint or a cause, and last year banned these pesticides without proof that they are actually related to the bee problem. No such proof was needed, because the EU “had to act.” A European Commission report issued last month suggests otherwise. Before the ban kicked in and pesticides were sprayed with abandon, 11 European nations measured the loss of winter bees to fall in the normal range of 15 percent or less.

Among the original 15 members of the European Union, according to statistics reproduced by Australia’s Pesticides and Veterinary Medicine Authority, the number of beehives has increased almost continuously from around 5.5 million in 1960 to almost 7 million near the end of the past decade. Worldwide, the bee population has risen from under 50 million hives in 1960 to more than 60 million in 2010, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization.

If environmental groups can’t hype a bee crisis, they’ll have nothing to say in the scary emails they use to raise money. That’s what the buzz is about.