Being stung by a bee will hurt, but losing the bees forever can be even more painful. It may be hard to see why bees are so important to us, but actually one of every three bites of food you take comes from a pollinated plant or an animal that depends on bee pollination.
Since the mid-2000s, bees have been mysteriously vanishing, causing many problems such as an economic hardship for farms and the food industry in the last 50 years (a total loss of over $15 billion).
The Impact of Honey Bees as Pollinators in Agriculture
Many people associate bees with painful, potentially dangerous stings. Honey bees are essential to keeping our ecosystem healthy. As we mentioned, one out of three bites of food comes from a bee-pollinated plant. No bees equals no pollination, which means no fruits or vegetables.
The irony is bees aren’t out there pollinating our food intentionally. They are out there, because they, like any other animal, need to feed. Bees get all the protein they need from pollen and all the carbs from nectar. They’re flower feeders. As they move from flower to flower, they end up providing that vital pollination serum.
What is happening with the bees?
In 2006, beekeepers started to report that seemingly healthy bees were simply abandoning their hives in mass numbers, never to return.
Researchers call this mass disappearance Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Symptoms of CCD include an abandoned healthy queen and brood, without any dead bees around the hive.
This is a condition where we see a rapid loss of the adult bee population. Normally, when a bee hive is dead, the first thing that happens is other bees come and rob it out.
With this new phenomenon, the honeycombs are full of honey, and a 100 yards way sits another hive of bees that won’t look at this stuff. But with this new phenomenon of bee disappearance an abandoned hive with plenty of honey would remain ignored.
What is the trigger for the so-called CCD?
Despite a number of claims in the general and scientific media, no single factor has been identified as the main reason for CCD.
- Bees are dying from multiple and interacting causes – diseases, parasites, pesticides, monocultures and flowerless landscapes.
- Bottom line, bees dying reflects a flowerless landscape and a dysfunctional food system. This colony collapse is one of the signs, the really unmistakable signs, that our food system is unsustainable.
- Bees are an indicator of environmental quality when the hardworking beneficial insects are dying, then something is definitely wrong.
Why are honey bees becoming extinct?
In the USA, bees have been declining since 1945, when the number of managed colonies was 4.5 million. In 2007 that number has shrunk to 2 million. After WWII, all farming practices have drastically changed. There are a number of reasons for that.
- We stopped planting cover crops which are a natural fertiliser that fixes nitrogen into the soil. Instead, we started to use synthetic fertilisers.
- Clover and alfalfa are highly nutritious plants for bees after WWII we started using urbacides to kill off the weeds in farms.
- Monocultures. Many of these weeds are flowering plants, which bees require for their survival. We are growing larger crop monocultures.
- This is what you call a food desert. Places in our city, neighbourhoods that have no grocery stores. The very farms that use to sustain bees are now agricultural food desert dominated by one or two species like corn and soybeans.
Since 1945 we have been systematically eliminating many of the flowering plants that bees need for their survival. Bees have been dying over the last 50 years and we are planting more crops that need them. There has been a 300% increase in crop production that requires bee pollination.
After WWII, we started using pesticides on a large scale. This became necessary, because of the monocultures that put out a feast for crop pests.
Researchers from Pennsylvania State University have inspected the pesticide residue in the loads of pollen that bees carry home as food.
They found that every batch of pollen that a honey bee collects has at least six detectable pesticides in it. This includes every class of insecticides, urbacides, fungicides and more that are part of the pesticide formulation. One of these insecticides is called neonicotinoids an entirely new class.
What it does is it moves through the plant so that crop pests such as leaf-eating insects will take a bite of the plant which contains a lethal dose of the insecticide.
If this new compound is applied in high concentration in the ground, it will move through the plant and get into the pollen and the nectar. Where a bee can consume, in this case, a high dose of this neurotoxin, and die.
In most agricultural settings and farms, only the seed is coded with the insecticide. So a smaller concentration moves through the plant and gets in the pollen and nectar.
If a bee consumes this lower dose either nothing happens or the bee becomes intoxicated and disoriented, thus it may not find its way home.
On top of everything else, bees have their own set of diseases and parasites. Public enemy number one for bees is the varroa destructor mite. It’s a big blood sucking parasite that compromises the bee’s immune system and injects viruses into the bloodstream.
What can you do to save the bees?
You can take action today and help make our world a healthier place for bees. Here are things that you can do to save our bees:
Plant a bee-friendly garden
Flowers – especially ones native to your area – help feed bees and other valuable pollinators. Native plants also often require less water and fertiliser than non-native plants. You will be doing a huge favour to native species of bees who have adapted over thousands of years to feed off these plants.
Start a honeybee hive
You can directly impact the health of your local ecosystem by starting a honeybee hive. Plus, you get the added benefits of bee products such as honey, beeswax, as well as the satisfaction and joy derived from working with the hive.
Sponsor a hive
If you can’t start your own hive or would like to help increase the number of hives, why not help fund new hive installations? A donation of any size, to an organisation committed to bee preservation, goes a long day.
Support your local beekeeper
Support local beekeepers who nurture their bees while providing local communities with healthy bee production including honey by purchasing their honey at your local farmer’s markets. When you think about it, humanity should behave a little bit more like a bee society, an insect society.
Our individual actions can contribute to a grand solution
and bring forth a property that is much greater than the mere sum of our individual actions. Let the small act of planting flowers and keeping them free of pesticides be the driver or large scale change.
Image source: Sten Roosvald/shutterstock.com