Climate change could contribute to honey declines, study says

Climate change could be contributing to a three-decade decline in honey production, according to a new study from Penn State.

The Penn State researchers looked at 50 years worth of data on honey production by state as a way of measuring how the landscape of available flowers has shifted over that time. Bees need nectar from flowers to make honey.

Researchers compared production with average temperature and precipitation, soil health, land use, and herbicide use. They found that regional climate and soil productivity were key for supporting floral communities.

The study was published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

“Beekeepers are seeing lower production of honey on a per-colony basis, and because honeybees are so good at finding resources in the landscape, that probably indicates that there are fewer flowers overall for all bees,” said lead author Gabriela Quinlan.

She said the paper could give researchers another tool for designing good pollinator habitat.

“While it can be kind of disheartening to hear that these really broad effects like climate are driving most of what we’re seeing, I think that we can do our part by planting flowers for bees,” she said.

Quinlan said a lot will depend on how well native flowers survive and adapt in each region. She said their findings may help predict those changes.

Quinlan noted that other studies found periods of drought and heavy rain are linked with decreases in honey. Droughts and intense storms are becoming more likely in different parts of the country with climate change.

Bethanne Bruninga-Socolar, a pollinator expert at Albright College who was not part of the study, said the paper is interesting for how it connects factors that affect both non-native honeybees and wild, native bees.

“That it’s not just enough to think about flowers, we also need to think about these broader landscape characteristics,” she said.

Bruninga-Socolar said the study is worth reading for a look at broad trends across the country. She noted one limitation is that honeybees are cultivated.

“It’s hard for me to draw conclusions about environmental variables when the reason that the honeybees are there and producing honey is because people have put them there,” Bruninga-Socolar said.

Quinlan said there are other factors that may be affecting honeybees, such as parasites and pesticides, but data for those areas aren’t available on a national level.