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The $15B risk to the economy no one is talking about

Last May, a woman named Corinna Groncki slowed down for a traffic accident on I-95 in Delaware, something not too uncommon for those familiar with the roadway. But then, Groncki told USA Today, she saw a man running away from the wreck tearing his clothes off and hitting himself.

It turns out that the wrecked truck was carrying some 20 million honey bees from Florida to Maine. It’s not the only such wreck. In fact, enough bee-carrying trucks have crashed in this country that Live Science wrote an article called “Why are so many bee-carrying trucks crashing” in 2011.

But the thing is these bee-carrying trucks are responsible for some $15 billion of the U.S. economy - which is to say they add $15 billion in value to U.S agriculture. Put another way, the crops that depend on bee pollination - like apples and broccoli - account for about $40 billion worth of agriculture. And the majority of those bees live on trucks.

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“They sort of hang out in Canada for a while and then they drive around the Central Valley in California and go from crop to crop,” explains Lizzie O’Leary, host of Marketplace Weekend.

So why all the fuss about bees? Because for years they have been mysteriously dying off. But now, they may be making a tenuous comeback. And the crazy part – the thing that makes it a risk to the economy – is that no one really knows why they were dying or why the crisis appears to be abating.

Starting around 2006, bees started abandoning their colonies and dying off. It was called Colony Collapse Disorder and to this day, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, no one really knows what’s behind it. That’s partly because the bees just disappeared, with no bodies to indicate what might have happened. What we do know is it caused about a third of bees in the U.S. to die mysteriously each year. So if you’re a fan of almonds, blueberries, pumpkins, cucumbers and many other types of produce, this is a big deal. No bees means no pollination for these crops; fewer bees means higher prices.

HoneyLove.org founder and beekeeper Rob McFarland inspects a beehive on the roof of his Los Angeles home in 2014. There is a push to legalize beekeeping in the city.

That’s why the bee economy is so important. “You saw kind of a joining of forces of commercial beekeeping and big agribusiness who realized if you had these bees who went from place to place, fertilized some almonds, fertilized some blueberries, it was actually a great business thing. So they’ve been coming back to some degree, honey bees.”

Initially, some scientiests thought this nomadic lifetsyle might be contributing to bee losses. But while the bee-truck industry hasn't slowed, bee losses appear to have. Last winter, the U.S. lost 23.2% of its bees. That’s down from a 30.5% drop the year before and blow the 10-year average of 29.6%. A search on Google shows headlines from all over the country declaring that bee populations are making a comeback.

This could be thanks partially to private industry. A growing number of companies are pushing to expand beekeeping past just trucks and farms. Take urban beekeeping, for example.

“There is a movement towards urban beekeeping. There are a lot of companies that do this,” said O’Leary. “I talked to the head of a company who was, the day we spoke, in Chicago on the roof of some building trying to convince big real estate companies to put hives up there.”

It’s not just urban hippie types putting hives in their backyard, she says. Bees actually survive better in urban environments than rural ones. There’s an entire Ted talk on the subject. But as O’Leary sums it up, bees “like more stuff” and there’s a variety of plants and flowers for bees to choose from in cities.

Globally, the U.S. is not alone in this. Germany is trying the urban beekeeping trend as well. After all, $15 billion of our economy depends on bees, but that number is $100 billion globally. So while bees in the city might scare some, it may be necessary to the future of almonds and blueberries.

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