There are about 2.7 million honeybee colonies in the United States, with 30,000 to 50,000 bees in each. Their primary role is pollination in agriculture, and each colony also produces 20 to 60 pounds of honey per year. The average female worker bee lives for about six weeks at peak production and up to six months during the winter.
We tend to lump all bees together, but honeybees differ from the other 20,000 species, including 4,000 in North America alone. Honeybees, which arrived in North America with European colonists in the early seventeenth century, live in colonies, are perennial, and are semi-domesticated by humans. Most other species are solitary, living in the wild without a queen or a hive. While they are equally important for pollination, they are more difficult to predict and harness for agriculture.
The main threats to honeybees are parasites and pathogens, pesticides and other environmental contaminants, and a lack of nutrition through habitat loss and diminishing foraging resources. Exotic parasitic mites began popping up in the mid-1980s and remain a challenge for honeybees and beekeepers. Varroa mites, for example, can transfer viruses like deformed wing virus, which causes bees’ wings to shrivel or disappear, leaving them unable to forage and maintain a healthy hive. Bees can fight mites off to some degree, but once they multiply, they can take over the hive.
In 2007, an alarming number of beekeepers began reporting dead colonies in which worker bees disappeared, leaving behind the queen and immature bees. This phenomenon, called Colony Collapse Disorder, largely remains a mystery, but media coverage has helped educate the public about the importance of pollinators. There has not been a decline in the managed honeybee population in recent years, but the unsustainable mortality of colonies continues to be an important issue. The decline of wild native bees has been similarly problematic. In 2017, the rusty patched bumble bee became the first domestic wild bee to be listed as endangered. With many species and such little baseline population data, however, this drop been difficult to quantify.
People can promote the conservation of bee-friendly habitats by planting pollen- and nectar-bearing flowers and shrubs like sunflowers and fireweed; minimizing the use of pesticides, particularly when bees are actively foraging in an area; and supporting local beekeeper associations and research efforts.