A year ago I wrote a post titled ‘How many honey bees are there?‘, after a question on Quora got me intrigued about whether any kind of data exists on worldwide honey bee numbers. Would anyone really have counted?
Well, it turns out they have… sort of.
At the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization website, FAOSTAT, you can now download the latest 2017 data on the number of managed bee hives worldwide across 125 countries (though not my own country, the UK!). The individual country data can be downloaded as a juicy detailed spreadsheet or the data can be visualised in interactive attractive graphs for you in the Visualize data section – this tells us that there was a worldwide total of 90,999,730 hives (up slightly from 90,564,654 hives in 2016).
So the long-term global trend since 1961 is that the number of honey bee colonies has gone up. There have been long-term decreases in the US and some European countries, but these have been made up for by increases elsewhere in the world. More on this later.
That’s the number of hives, but how many bees are there?
So, 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. Bearing this in mind, I’ve read vastly wide ranging estimates of how many bees are in a colony; but the British Beekeeping Association (BBKA) About bees web section says ‘Typical maximum population is 35,000-50,000’, so let’s go with that.
Allowing for weaker colonies and winter reductions in numbers, as a total guess/very rough and un-mathematical estimate we might say an average of around 20,000 bees could be in each colony.
So we could estimate a total number of honey bees of 90,564,654 x 20,000, which my calculator says = 1.8199946e+12 ! Let’s round that up to two trillion.
However, this number is only for bee hives that have been counted and the data supplied to the United Nations – so it’s likely to refer to colonies being managed by beekeepers. The spreadsheet says the data is ‘Aggregate, may include official, semi-official, estimated or calculated data’. Unless someone out there was clambering up every tree or chimney counting every colony in the land, 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 poor 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.
Honey bee numbers are increasing, but crop pollination demand is increasing faster
The problem is not that honey bee numbers are decreasing, but that demand for their crop pollination services has increased. 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 honey bee 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 in honey bee populations, that’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’.
How many honey bees are in the US?
FAOSTAT says there were 2,669,000 hives in the USA in 2017 (the latest year they have available as of June 2019).
If we look at the long-term trend since 1961, the number of beehives in the US has fallen significantly. This bucks the trend in the world totals for beehives having increased since then.
Why are honey bee numbers falling in the US? This is a complex question to answer, but there are some clues in the annual Bee Informed Partnership National Management Survey, which surveys nearly 4,700 US beekeepers. The top ten reasons given for winter colony losses are (in no particular order): don’t know (!), colony collapse disorder, queen failure, weak colony, nosema, varroa, pesticides, small hive beetle, starvation and poor wintering.
How many honey bees are in the UK?
If you’re looking for UK figures… it’s not clear why, but FAOSTAT has no data on numbers of beehives in the UK after 1987; for 1986, it gives the figure 191,000.
Which will make my global estimate even more inaccurate! The UK government does attempt to collect hive numbers through the National Bee Unit – their Hive Count page says:
“2017’s count indicated a total UK population of honey bee hives of approximately 247,000. Please note that several assumptions formed part of the calculations used to get derive this number. It is therefore classed as an ‘experimental statistic’.”
So: an estimate of 247,000 hives in the UK in 2017. That compares to a count of 223,000 in 2016.
In the UK too, it looks like managed honey bee numbers are going up.
Nice! I remember your post from last year. When people ask, I try to point out that thousands of beekeepers around the world actively manage and take care of honey bees. It is the native bees, that have no caretaker, that are a greater concern. I wonder if there are worldwide numbers for native bee populations anywhere??
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Thanks Erik. I have a feeling there isn’t any one organisation collecting native bee numbers for the whole world, but I shall take your comment as a challenge to investigate over the next couple of weeks!
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I agree, in that I’m not certain a good estimate can be found. It would be great to see, so I will look forward to the results of your investigations!
Thanks, Emily. It’s great to give these figures some light.
Reblogged this on Bad Beekeeping Blog and commented:
Reblogged to badbeekeepingblog.com from Emily Scott’s Adventures in Beeland. Now we know that the number of bee hives in the world went up again – now at 91 million kept hives and millions of feral colonies! Thanks, Emily!
Thanks Ron, fab to be linked to from your blog!
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I should say there are a lot of feral colonies! Got a nice fat swarm just yesterday in Redondo Beach CA
Feral bees or swarm which escaped last year from a neglected beehive ?
the chances of being true feral is remote in that part of Los Angeles Further in north possible toward Santa Barbara , San Fernando valley or Glendale possible but Redondo beach they have to cross the entire city which is more than the normal flight distance for North American bee “couples miles”
There is only one specie of bee in the world known to date able to fly across the City it is a bee from the Island of Ouessant known as ” Abeille noire d’Ouessant “, much larger ,
they have been known to fly 3 times the distance than normal bee against strong sea wind on regular basis they also have the lowest winter mortality of any bees 3 % vs 35 to 40%, as well as being very resistant to varroa as they are now used to repopulate mainland , Cost around 300 euro and up , they are also strictly protected , unfortunately importation in the USA like all bee product is extremely regulated.
So sorry likelihood of being true feral is slim , one can always hope !
Thanks for your comment. I hadn’t heard of Ousessant before so have just been doing a little reading – it sounds fascinating. Lovely little video with one of the beekeepers there: http://ehsanb.squarespace.com/reel/rhhpjwbnj59mcqmjiuq9f26sshwjwe
And the difference between the number of honeybees and the number of pollinators needed is made up by wild pollinators! 😉
Wild pollinators struggle to make up the crop pollination difference, if that is what you are referring to. Not only are they often specific in what they pollinate ie. not crops, their flight ranges are often very short, so unless bands of season long forage are protected and/or provided near the crops, they cannot populate the cultivated areas. In my area where land prices are high, farm fields are now being ploughed margin to margin, no wild forages left at all. This creates food deserts for the pollinators on which these crops depend. Crazy! And we haven’t even begun to discuss the issues created by agri-sprays…
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Wow. I didn’t realize there were that many colonies. Obviously, honeybees are not in decline. It is beekeeper greed that is always inclining.
Bruce…as a hobby beekeeper who works their duff off to keep my bees well, please do not paint us all with that “greedy, rapacious beekeeper” brush.
A bit of a stretch there. When I say greed, I mean beekeepers that will under no circumstances accept the loss of any colonies regardless of how sick, weak, and helpless those colonies are. They are not happy with 75% survival, they would rather treat their way to 85%. It’s about protecting their investment at that point.
In my area losses would be 100% thanks to Varroa and their viruses. Every beekeeper I know is always trying to improve their bee stock to be more robust, always weeding out the queens that run sickly, weak colonies. The big problem is: how to we keep bees healthy enough to service the food supply system? Mercifully some really promising tech is now being studied as it applies to helping honey bees (who were doing just fine pre-Varroa, let’s not forget)…research into benign viral loads in Varroa (so they don’t make bees sick), into bee immunology (to deal with bee diseases, traded and spread so freely via mobile pollination) and gene suppression (which is used to eradicate insect pests by interrupting their ability to do some critical task ie. feed or reproduce).
Let’s get back on track. Bees are not in decline. All those packages the people in your area buy? Those are sold to you by the big commercial beekeepers who pollinate our food supply. They are selling you surplus bees for cheap. If we were in a bee crisis, little backyard beekeepers would not be able to buy these. The “big guys” would not part with them. As far as improving their stock, how exactly do they do this with surplus bees from who knows where that rely on a cocktail of treatments just to make it to winter, let alone through it? Beekeepers are being suckered in every direction. First, that they need to save the bees by buying the overstock of commercial apiaries, then second, that they need to buy all the treatments necessary to drag said bees through winter. The heck with that. I collect free bees all season and the strong survive.
Data always seems to make a little more sense when explained well! So many people are pessimistic when viewing data like this, and try to make everything appear absolutely horrible. I, for one, am happy to hear that the amount of kept hives is increasing!!
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Thanks Autumn. I like to highlight it because some organisations try to make money out of the ‘bee crisis’, scaremongering that honey bees are under threat. In reality native wild pollinators are the bees we need to worry about – their habitats are being destroyed. There are many opportunities to help them in even the tiniest spaces but instead so many of us have lawns treated with chemicals or front gardens that are car parking spaces.
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Well said Emily, it is indeed the wild pollinators that are under threat. Here is an interesting new report that shows ways of helping them: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/14/city-bees-allotments-gardens-help-arrest-decline-study
A good read as usual. Thank you.
Thanks Tricia 🙂
can you update this?
Hi Kenzie, this post was only written in January this year. There won’t be any more recent data published yet.
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