EDIT 2019 – see my latest post How many honey bees are there? A 2019 update for more recent figures.
“How many honey bees are there?” – an answer for Quora
I rarely answer questions on the Q&A website Quora nowadays, on account of having no spare time, but I was asked to answer this one and it got me intrigued about whether any kind of data exists on this. Would anyone really have counted?
Well, it turns out they have… sort of.
At the United Nationswebsite, , you can download the latest 2016 data on the number of managed bee hives worldwide across 123 countries. The individual country data can be downloaded as a juicy detailed spreadsheet or the data can be visualised in attractive graphs for you at – this tells us that there was a worldwide total of 90,564,654 beehives in 2016.
But we want to know the total number of honey bees, not just honey bee hives. Of course the number of honey bees in a hive fluctuates during the year depending on the local weather, season, available forage and the health of the colony. The species or sub-species of honey bee will also affect how many bees are in a colony. I’ve seen vastly wide ranging estimates of how many bees are in a colony, but the British Beekeeping Association (BBKA) ‘’ information sheet says ‘In high summer about 35,000, dropping to around 5,000 in the winter’, so let’s go with that. As a very rough and un-mathematical estimate we might say around 20,000 bees could be in each colony. So 90,564,654 x 20,000, which my calculator says = 1.8112931e+12
But this number is only for bee hives that have been counted and the data supplied to the United Nations. The spreadsheet says the data is ‘Aggregate, may include official, semi-official, estimated or calculated data’. One can imagine its accuracy may vary widely from country to country! Unless anyone was clambering up every tree or chimney counting colonies, there will be many more wild colonies that have not been included. And the number of live honey bee colonies will be fluctuating all the time.
Despite the gloomy media reports about declining honey bee numbers, I hope these estimates persuade you that honey bees are not facing the same predicament as the Javan rhino (58-68 left). Indeed the long-term trend over the past half-century seems to indicate that the number of hives globally is increasing.
This trend was picked up on by Katherine Harmon in her 2009 Scientific American article Growth Industry: Honeybee Numbers Expand Worldwide as U.S. Decline Continues. She mentions an increase of 45% in domesticated honeybee populations over the 50 years of FAOSTAT data studied by researchers Marcelo A. Aizen and Lawrence D. Harder for their 2009 Current Biology journal paper (The Global Stock of Domesticated Honey Bees Is Growing Slower Than Agricultural Demand for Pollination). Yet despite this growth, it’s still dwarfed by the >300% increase in agricultural crops that rely on animal pollination. Aizen and Harder say, ‘The main exceptions to this global increase involve long-term declines in the USA and some European countries, but these are outweighed by rapid growth elsewhere’.
We can see that over the past five years India, China and Turkey now take the top spots for bee hive stocks.
Of course, now that I’ve attempted to answer the question it will probably turn out the questioner was asking an entirely different question. Maybe they just wanted to know the number of honey bee species there are. The first rule of answering any enquiry is to pin down what the question really is, as it often turns out to be something entirely different from what you thought. And sometimes the person asking isn’t entirely sure what they want either.
Anyway, Happy New Year!
EDIT: MerryBee left a comment below saying “Interesting article, Emily. Have you any idea while there seems to be no data on FAOSTAT for beehives in the UK after 1987?”
I’ve had a look too and found the same thing – for some reason our government no longer seems to be supplying the data to FAOSTAT. Which will make my global estimate even more inaccurate! The UK government does attempt to collect hive numbers through the National Bee Unit – according to their Hive Count page “Last year’s count indicated a total UK population of honey bee hives of approximately 223,000”.