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Monday, November 30, 2015

In typical environmental reporting, media got the bee apocalypse backward

When it comes to environmental reporting, just remember journalism is pursued by people who cannot do science. Journalists are gamed repeatedly by government bureaucrats, airy academics, and each other. Pack journalism is worse than any liberal bias. I am trying to think of another industry where peer approval is more important than sales.

Enter Bryan Walsh of Time magazine, who became an overnight expert on bees with a cover story on August 19, 2013, about a world without bees! He wrote that honeybees are responsible for one-third of the food you eat. And according to Bryan Walsh, the bees are mysteriously disappearing from the face of the Earth.

From his story:
Around 2006, commercial beekeepers began noticing something disturbing: their honeybees were disappearing. Beekeepers would open their hives and find them full of honeycomb, wax, even honey–but devoid of actual bees. As reports from worried beekeepers rolled in, scientists coined an appropriately apocalyptic term for the mystery malady: colony-collapse disorder (CCD). Suddenly beekeepers found themselves in the media spotlight, the public captivated by the horror-movie mystery of CCD. Seven years later, honeybees are still dying on a scale rarely seen before, and the reasons remain mysterious. One-third of U.S. honeybee colonies died or disappeared during the past winter, a 42% increase over the year before and well above the 10% to 15% losses beekeepers used to experience in normal winters.
Walsh quoted a panicked government official. There's always a panicked government official handy.
“The take-home message is that we are very close to the edge,” says Jeff Pettis, the research leader at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Bee Research Laboratory. “It’s a roll of the dice now.”
Walsh then delved into a single-source story of the plight of Jim Doan, who had been a beekeeper in Hamlin, New York:
“There were hundreds of hives in the backyard and no bees in them,” he says. In the years since, he has experienced repeated losses, his bees growing sick and dying. To replace lost hives, Doan needs to buy new queens and split his remaining colonies, which reduces honey production and puts more pressure on his few remaining healthy bees. Eventually it all became unsustainable. In 2013, after decades in the business, Doan gave up. He sold the 112 acres (45 hectares) he owns – land he had been saving to sell after his retirement – and plans to sell his beekeeping equipment as well, provided he can find someone to buy it. Doan is still keeping some bees in the meantime, maintaining a revenue stream while considering his options. Those options include a job at Walmart.
So because one man went out of business, we are supposed to fret about a world without bees.

And while no one figured out why the bee population was nearly halved in 2006, like any good environmental reporter, Walsh speculated that the culprit was capitalism:
Doan’s not alone in walking away from such unhappy work. The number of commercial beekeepers has dropped by some three-quarters over the past 15 years, and while all of them may agree that the struggle is just not worth it anymore, they differ on which of the possible causes is most to blame. Doan has settled on the neonicotinoid pesticides – and there’s a strong case to be made against them.
The chemicals are used on more than 140 different crops as well as in home gardens, meaning endless chances of exposure for any insect that alights on the treated plants. Doan shows me studies of pollen samples taken from his hives that indicate the presence of dozens of chemicals, including the neonicotinoids. He has testified before Congress about the danger the chemicals pose and is involved in a lawsuit with other beekeepers and with green groups that calls on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to suspend a pair of pesticides in the neonicotinoid class. “The impacts [from the pesticides] are not marginal, and they’re not academic,” says Peter Jenkins, a lawyer for the Center for Food Safety and a lead counsel in the suit. “They pose real threats to the viability of pollinators.”
That beekeepers are leaving the business likely has more to do with there being too many beekeepers (as you will read later, you can start a colony for $100) than too few bees.

In fact, the number of bees in the United States was approaching a cyclical high in 2013. Nevertheless, the imaginary problem of a bee apocalypse was cemented and this May, President Obama vowed to get a government solution with the "National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators."

The trouble with ObamaBee is that the bee population rebounded and reached a 20-year high. What reporters and environmentalists labeled "colony collapse disorder" -- CCD because it is too long to type out again and again -- has itself collapsed. Capitalism replenished the bee population, according to Christopher Ingraham of the Washington Post:
If CCD is wiping out close to a third of all honeybee colonies a year, how are their numbers rising? One word: Beekeepers.
A 2012 working paper by Randal R. Tucker and Walter N. Thurman, a pair of agricultural economists, explains that seasonal die-offs have always been a part of beekeeping: they report that before CCD, American beekeepers would typically lose 14 percent of their colonies a year, on average.
So beekeepers have devised two main ways to replenish their stock. The first method involves splitting one healthy colony into two separate colonies: put half the bees into a new beehive, order them a new queen online (retail price: $25 or so), and voila: two healthy hives.
The other method involves simply buying a bunch of bees to replace the ones you lost. You can buy 3 pounds of "packaged" bees, plus a queen, for about $100 or so.
Beekeepers have been doing this sort of thing since the advent of commercial beekeeping.
Actually, since the advent of beekeeping, which dates back 9,000 years.

So what is the lesson learned in this panic? First, reporters know nothing about bees. Remember the killer bees? Second, reporters know nothing about economics. If there is a shortage of bees, then bees have value and beekeepers begin selling them to one another. Bees cost around $25 a pound plus $25 for a queen (or three pounds and a queen for $100). That hardly seems like a scarce commodity. Third, reporters always blame man for the problems of nature. All things considered, nature does more harm to man than man does to nature.


  1. I am trying to think of another industry where peer approval is more important than sales.
    Simple, GOPe politics.

  2. The New York Post said, after an article it published was found to be fiction, that the duty of the press was to get the "story" out as soon as possible and leave "truth to the historians". But fantasy sells, truth not so much, in a compettitve age

  3. Don,

    It is even worse than that, if possible. Here is first paragraph of article [b]y Tom Turpin, Professor of Entomology, Purdue University .

    "Honey bees are among the most recognizable and beneficial of the insects that live in North America. But these insects are not even native to the Americas. Like most of the livestock associated with American farms, honey bees were imported by European settlers."


    My question is this. Where were the beekeepers and professors when the CCD fear was being promoted?


    1. Not being interviewed; being ignored. Because the story is missing bees (where were the dead bees? were there no reports of dead bees all over the place?); why talk to a number of people who might actually know something about bees? That could harsh the narrative.

  4. " just remember journalism is pursued by people who cannot do science "

    i.e. Global Warming.

  5. In college, the dumbest people get education degrees, the second dumbest get journalism degrees.

    1. I take it you have met an education reporter or two

    2. And what about those who got education degrees, and then taught journalism?

  6. All one has to do is read, watch, or listen. I like what they call TV news anchors in the UK: News readers which is what they are. Remember how easily the reporters were punked with the made up flight crew's names in the crash in San Fran? Sum Ting Wong. Ho Lee Fuk. Sports Illustrated had the same thing happen to them when women were protesting Augusta National. A counter protester from an Atlanta Radio station gave his name as Heywood Jablome. It was up on the SI web site for 24 hours.

    BTW Don, I sure hope your degree wasn't in Journalism. If so you are the exception to the rule.

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  8. I just bought a tractor with a cab on it because I'm tired of being stung by them. I have a neighbor who is an amateur beekeeper, and yellow jackets are all over my property. We also had to kill a colony that nested under our kitchen window. If there was a shortage of bees we had no clue.