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How Beekeepers (and Capitalism) Are Saving our Food Supply Chain

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As a young boy in rural south Florida, I was fascinated by honey bees. I would watch the beekeepers come to the numerous hives dotted around the orange groves near my home. Using their smokers, they would open the hives and extract the delicious orange-blossom honey.  I always thought that someday I would like to have some bee hives of my own.

As you can imagine, I have followed media reports over the last ten years about the impending “beemageddon” with some interest. Articles in publications like Time and news stories on NPR and national news outlets warned of a crisis in the food supply chain because of something called “Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD). Scores of bees weren’t just dying but were mysteriously disappearing from their hives.

“Crisis” Management

While there has been much speculation about the cause of CCD (everything from genetically modified foods, pesticides, and climate change, to cell phones and high voltage electric transmission lines), to date, no one has identified the cause. As one article suggested, we all need to take up beekeeping and put hives behind our houses. I was certainly ready to take up the flag to save the bees.

In fact, the problem appeared to be so desperate that President Obama created a federal task force to develop a national strategy to promote honey bees and other pollinators, calling for $82 million in federal funding to address the problem.

So, when I recently came across Shawn Regan’s article entitled “How Capitalism Saved the Bees” (digital subscription required), I was somewhat surprised. In his article, Regan writes, “A decade after Colony Collapse Disorder began, pollination entrepreneurs have staved off beepocalypse.”

A 2012 report published by the Property and Environment Research Center corroborates Regan’s claim. The authors, agricultural economists Randal R. Rucker and Walter N. Thurman, conclude:

The overblown response to CCD in the media stems from a failure to appreciate the resilience of markets in accommodating shocks of various sorts…Our examination of the operation of pollination markets leads us to conclude that beekeepers are savvy entrepreneurs who use their wealth of knowledge of the particular circumstances of time and place…to adapt quickly to changing market conditions. Not only was there not a failure of bee-related markets, but they adapted quickly and effectively to the changes induced by the appearance of Colony Collapse Disorder.

Crisis Averted

Contrary to the doomsday scenarios in the press describing all the terrible things that might happen because of CCD, beekeepers have quietly been developing workarounds to cost-effectively breed more bees to replace the ones lost to CCD.

Regan suggests that, to the beekeeper, honey bees are essentially livestock, “their owners breed them, rear them, and provide proper nutrition and veterinary care to them.”  Unlike other pollinators, like bumble bees and wasps, honey bees are not native to the United States but were imported from Europe by English settlers in the 1600s.

“Rebuilding lost colonies is a routine part of modern beekeeping,” writes Regan. Beekeepers have learned how to split existing hives and provide another queen for only about $19 and 20 minutes of labor. Regan continues, “As long as some healthy hives remain that can be used for splitting, beekeepers can quickly and easily rebuild lost colonies.”

Even though cases of CCD are still being reported, American Enterprise Institute found that there were 16% more honey bees in the United States in 2016 than before the disorder hit in 2006.

Market-Based Problem-Solving

While this is an interesting story, it is also another example of people using their God-given creativity to solve problems, motivated by legitimate self-interest, within our current market economy, without any help from the government. It is not that these types of stories about the success of capitalism are rare—just the opposite; they are so common that they are taken for granted. They don’t make the news.

The lesson in this story may revolve not so much around the overhyping as around the government’s response. Rebecca Terrell of New American Magazine writes about former President Obama’s Pollinator Health Task Force:

One year and $82 million after the Obama administration launched its Pollinator Health Task Force, honey bee colonies are doing great—just as they were one year before the advent of Obama’s costly initiative. In fact, 2014 witnessed a 20-year high in numbers of managed honey-producing colonies, according to the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Terrell goes on to quote an administrator of the Pollinator Health Task Force from a 2015 report regarding the impact of a year of work and $48 million in programs. “These efforts have proven insufficient to reverse declines.” One might wonder why the Pollinator Health Task Force would not be aware of USDA data.

Hopefully, someone will tell them How Capitalism Saved the Bees.

Does capitalism harm the environment? Explore the answer to that question and others in IFWE’s upcoming book, Counting the Cost: Christian Critiques of Capitalism (Abilene Christian University Press, Aug. 8, 2017). Save $5 on pre-order pricing—order it today!

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  • Russ McCullough, PhD

    Awesome example that I will share with my students of microeconomics this fall! Thanks!

  • Jonathan Waterman

    So, where did the $82 Mil go…do you know what that was spent on? I’m betting there are folks who will argue that without the $82 Mil taxpayer/gov intervention plan, this incredible progress would never have happened. Was the money simple spent on committees and other issues of gov largess or did some of that money find its way to crony beekeepers, orange growers, etc.?

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