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Wait, does America suddenly have a record number of bees?

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Where in the unholy heck did all these bees come from?!

After almost two decades of relentless colony collapse coverage and years of grieving suspiciously clean windshields, we were stunned to run the numbers on the new Census of Agriculture (otherwise known as that wonderful time every five years where the government counts all the llamas): America’s honeybee population has rocketed to an all-time high.

We’ve added almost a million bee colonies in the past five years. We now have 3.8 million, the census shows. Since 2007, the first census after alarming bee die-offs began in 2006, the honeybee has been the fastest-growing livestock segment in the country! And that doesn’t count feral honeybees, which may outnumber their captive cousins several times over.

This prompted so many questions. Does this mean the insect apocalypse is over? Are pollinators saved? Did we unravel the web of maladies known as colony collapse disorder?

But let’s start with the most important question: Is there, in fact, a bee boom?

We consider the census from the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) to be the gold standard, but another data set from those quantitative crusaders, the annual honey report, actually shows bee colonies losing ground.

Agriculture Department economist Stan Daberkow, who helped write the definitive comparison of these sources, retired in 2008 but continues to follow the beekeeping business closely. When we tracked him down, he dove headfirst into our data mystery, sending us theories and exchanging emails at 1:35 a.m. and beyond.

Like any source produced by humans and constrained by budgets, Daberkow said, the honey report and Census of Agriculture have their limitations. The honey report focuses on operations with five or more hives, while the census includes every farm in the country. In this case, “farm” means any plot of land that sells at least $1,000 of agriculture products in a year, a measure that could include more hobbyists and dabblers in the buzz biz.

Inflation also increases the share of beekeepers who qualify for the census: The Agriculture Department’s $1,000 farm definition hasn’t changed since 1975. So as honey prices, pollination fees, hive prices and other sources of bee revenue rise, more hobbyists will magically transmogrify into “farmers.” Some of those new farmers, plus others discovered through census outreach efforts, might get added to the honey report. So next year’s honey report could paint a sunnier picture.

Daberkow said he was somewhat “leery” of the latest census data. Given less-than-ideal recent honey prices, major producers shouldn’t have much incentive to expand their operations. “Any growth would likely have come in smaller operations, a demographic USDA goes to great lengths to track down for the census,” he said.

Sure enough, the census shows the number of operations with any bee colonies has ascended far faster than honey production or bee-colony counts — about 160 percent since 2007.

Much of the explosion of small producers came in just one state: Texas. The Lone Star State has gone from having the sixth-most bee operations in the country to being so far ahead of anyone else that it out-bees the bottom 21 states combined.

Our data showed the biggest increases in north Texas, a region not traditionally considered a honey hotbed. So we started dialing beekeepers to ask what was going on. The first thing we learned? Our job would be half as hard and twice as joyful if all our sources were Texas bee boosters. Every last one seemed genuinely thrilled to pick up the phone.

Consider John Talbert of Sabine Creek Honey Farm, age 85. A past president of both the Association for Facilities Engineering and the Texas Beekeepers Association, Talbert takes a spoonful of honey before bed each night and brings a jar of wildflower honey to every politician he meets. He does the same for his doctor and his dentist.

“That’s so small that it couldn’t be considered a bribe,” Talbert told us. “It’s just a gesture of good faith!”

Talbert is such an infectious evangelist, we suspect that he and his many protégés could have propelled the great American bee resurgence by enthusiasm alone. But the Texas beekeepers all pointed to one clear reason for the bee boom — and that reason answered the phone on our second try.

Dennis Herbert wouldn’t strike you as a political mover and shaker. A retired wildlife biologist, Herbert, 75, boasts of no fancy connections and drops no names. But in 2011, after keeping bees for a few years, he went to the Texas legislature and laid out a simple hypothetical.

“You own 200 acres on the other side of the fence from me, and you raise cotton for a living. You get your ag valuation and cheaper taxes on your property. I have 10 acres on the other side of the fence and raise bees, and I don’t receive my ag valuation. And yet my bees are flying across the fence and pollinating your crops and making a living for you,” Herbert said. “Well, I just never thought that quite fair.”

In 2012, the Herbert Hypothetical gave rise to a new law: Your plot of five to 20 acres now qualifies for agriculture tax breaks if you keep bees on it for five years.

Over the next few years, all 254 Texas counties adopted bee rules requiring, for example, six hives on five acres plus another hive for every 2.5 acres beyond that to qualify for the tax break. Herbert keeps a spreadsheet of the regulations and drives across the state to educate bee-curious landowners.

Herbert himself doesn’t qualify for the exemption. His modest homestead in the tiny town of Salado, about an hour north of Austin, isn’t big enough. But, he says, “more bees provide more pollination, and so I get to eat a little better. I get my watermelon during the summer. And that doesn’t make me anybody special at all. I just, I like my watermelon.”

While Herbert never intended it, Texas bee exemptions have become big business. That has created an opportunity for Gary Barber, a former newspaper photographer.

Barber got bit by the bee bug after he left the Dallas Morning News in 2014. His firm, Honey Bees Unlimited, now leases and runs 1,500 hives for 170 clients in eight counties north of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. As developers split the once-rural countryside into five- and 10-acre ranchettes, he’s signing up new clients faster than he can split hives to place on their land.

“It’s crazy, the blanket of bees over these counties!” Barber said. “Honestly, it’s not bee country: You’re not going to make it like a traditional beekeeper. But it’s really great because … now we’ve got pollinators all around!”

Barber has risen to become vice president of the Texas Beekeepers Association and promotes the industry alongside Herbert — especially every other year when the Texas legislature is in session.

“There’s usually some legislator that wants to mess with [the tax break], and we’ve got to go tell them why it’s great,” Barber told us. “And luckily, while our two political parties don’t agree on much, they all seem to want to save bees.”

These Texans helped explain the rise in beekeeping operations. And they built our trust in the Census of Agriculture as a purveyor of weird truth. But even with its army of small producers, Texas still ranks only sixth in the number of actual bee colonies. To find the true core of the bee boom, we had to make like the Village People and go west.

When the census was taken in December 2022, California had more than four times as many bees as any other state. We emailed pollination expert Brittney Goodrich at the University of California at Davis, who explained that pollinating the California almond crop “demands most of the honeybee colonies in the U.S. each year.”

Every February and March, something like 170 million almond trees unite in one of Earth’s great synchronized acts of sexual reproduction — made possible by the migration of the bees.

Pollination — not honey prices — has been the true rocket booster strapped to the back of the modern beekeeping industry. And almond pollination is responsible for $4 of every $5 spent on bee fertility assistance in the United States, according to NASS.

America’s almond acreage has more than doubled since 2007 as the world’s food firms race to stuff the nut into every conceivable granola mix, nut butter and milk substitute. So it seems reasonable to assume the honeybee population doubled along with it. After all, those almonds aren’t pollinating themselves.

(Editor’s note: Some of those almonds are, in fact, pollinating themselves. But self-pollinating trees remain a small minority.)

So the situation on the ground seems to confirm the census: We probably do have a record number of honeybees.

Sadly, however, this does not mean we’ve defeated colony collapse. One major citizen-science project found that beekeepers lost almost half of their colonies in the year ending in April 2023, the second-highest loss rate on record.

For now, we’re making up for it with aggressive management. The Texans told us that they were splitting their hives more often, replacing queens as often as every year and churning out bee colonies faster than the mites, fungi and diseases can take them down.

But this may not be good news for bees in general.

“It is absolutely not a good thing for native pollinators,” said Eliza Grames, an entomologist at Binghamton University, who noted that domesticated honeybees are a threat to North America’s 4,000 native bees, about 40 percent of which are vulnerable to extinction.

Grames helps lead EntoGEM, a collaborative effort to sift through more than 120,000 often-obscure scholarly articles worldwide in search of hidden insect-population data. Grames said the consensus holds that pollinators, like all insects, are in decline — losing probably 1 to 2 percent a year.

(“Pollinators” is not a synonym for “bees,” by the way. Legions of insects have evolved to help native plants with long-distance reproduction, including butterflies, moths, beetles, flies, midges and gnats. Many aren’t even fully known to science, so we can’t say with certainty they’re declining. But optimism would seem misplaced.)

Many of the same forces collapsing managed beehives also decimate their native cousins, only the natives don’t usually have entire industries and governments pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into supporting them. Grames compared the situation to birds, another sector in which maladies common in farmed animals, such as bird flu, threaten their wild cousins.

“You wouldn’t be like, ‘Hey, birds are doing great. We’ve got a huge biomass of chickens!’ It’s kind of the same thing with honeybees,” she said. “They’re domesticated. They’re essentially livestock.”

Mace Vaughan leads pollinator and agricultural biodiversity at Xerces, an insect-conservation outfit that has grown from five to nearly 80 employees during his 24 years there. Vaughan says it’s not a zero-sum game: For native pollinators to win, honeybees don’t have to lose. If we focus not on tax breaks, but on limiting the use of insecticide and promoting habitats such as meadows, hedgerows and wetlands, all pollinators can come out ahead.

“We’ve got really well-meaning people who are keeping honeybees because, ‘Oh, I’ve got to save the bees.’ That’s not the way you save the bees!” Vaughan told us. “The way you support both honeybees and beekeepers — and the way you save native pollinators — is to go out there and create beautiful flower-rich habitat on your farm or your garden.”

Howdy! The Department of Data seeks your quantitative queries. What are you curious about: Should we pay blood donors? When does spring really start? What’s the best time to get your flu shot? Just ask!

If your question inspires a column, we’ll send you an official Department of Data button and ID card. This week we owe one to ace news researcher Razzan Nakhlawi, who helped us track down several bee-data experts.



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