bThe Texas Beekeepers Association was already in the mood last spring. “If the populations get enough rain at the right time, they should be in much better shape than in previous years,” association president Dodie Stillman said at the time.

In previous years, bees in Texas had suffered: the ice and snow of Winter Storm Uri in early 2021, unusually heavy rain followed by drought, viral infections, food shortages and rather unproductive queen bees. “Especially smaller breeders have lost a lot of bees in recent years. It takes time for them to recover,” Stillman summarized the Texas A&M University study. Things weren't much better in other states. As calculated by the Bee Informed Partnership with Auburn University in Alabama and the University of Maryland, between spring 2022 and spring 2023, nearly one in two breeding colonies in the United States disappeared.

Statisticians count over 3.8 million bee colonies

At least according to the latest survey from the Washington, D.C.-based Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), America's bees have recovered in record time. Instead of the roughly 2.7 million colonies that NASS observed over the past 20 years, statisticians now count more than 3.8 million bee colonies. “The honey bee has become the fastest growing livestock population in the US! And that doesn't even include wild humans, who likely vastly outnumber their captive cousins,” data scientists at The Washington Post unexpectedly discovered.

In Florida: Beekeepers at work

In Florida: Beekeepers at work

Image: AFP

When looking for the reason for the “viability of bees”, they immediately found several possible reasons. In Texas, reporters found, the law offers tax breaks to landowners who keep bees on two to eight hectares of land for at least five years. All of the more than 250 counties in the Lone Star State, which borders Mexico, have passed regulations promoting beekeeping in recent years. If a bee colony can't survive winter storms, drought, or the dreaded Varroa mite, the surviving bee colonies are quickly divided and relocated. “We are not a typical bee area. A real beekeeper will not survive here. But bees are still valuable as pollinators,” said Gary Barber, who, as the founder of Honey Bees Unlimited, supplies beehives to hundreds of customers in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.

California is considered the most bee-friendly state

While Texas is only fourth or fifth on the list of the most bee-friendly states, California tops the list. The Pacific state has fewer honey-producing colonies than North Dakota. But according to a survey by the website Inhabitat, it offers a larger and healthier population than any other state. California, where more than 75,000 farms grow more than 400 types of fruits and vegetables, including grapes, lettuce and hemp, has four times more bees than any other region of the United States.

During pollination season for the Golden State's roughly 650,000 hectares of almond trees, California farmers also bring most of the sugar cane sold from any other state to the West Coast each year. The business of pollination has long been more profitable than honey production. Department of Agriculture statisticians have calculated that four out of every five beekeeping dollars now go to “pollinating” almond groves.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not share the hope of a supposed boom in bee colonies. Although the NASS curve is moving sharply upward, colony numbers have been steadily declining since 2017, according to the USDA's annual honey bee report. Stan Daberkow, an economist at the Department of Agriculture, blames different data sets for the conflicting curves. The National Agricultural Statistics Service included all farmers who earned at least $1,000 a year from bees or growing fruits and vegetables. USDA bee experts, however, based their study on beekeepers with five or more hives. According to Daberkow, the fact that the $1,000 value set by the NASS as a threshold has not been adjusted for almost 50 years does not help bee education in America. Inflation alone turns many hobby beekeepers into putative farmers.

However, the abundance of studies and their authors seem to agree on one thing: the amount of honey produced by honeybees in the United States has been steadily decreasing for almost 30 years. Possible reasons? Climate, soil productivity and herbicide use – at least, writes Gabriela Quinlan, an entomologist who studies bees at Penn State University.