We, humans, are the experts when it comes to eradicating bugs; unfortunately, this extends to the butterflies, the dragonflies, and the ladybugs too. While the issues of extermination reach far beyond this post, here, I focus solely on one very important class of pollinators, the Busy Bees.
The first time I heard about the bee decline was in 2012 during a presentation at a conference in Seattle, Washington. I remember feeling devastated at realizing the impact this would have on the environment; I also remember feeling cheated. I should have heard about the state of bee decline years earlier. Our natural pollinators are dying out at alarming rates. The bee decline has been a discussion for a few decades now, yet the paramount concerns remain and the implications are too scary to face. However, as with all climate change, we must face this.
The following article gives some background, discusses the gastronomical and economic effects, the causes of decline, and gives methods to improve conditions for our friends in need. Through this post, I hope to expand the awareness of the detrimental bee decline, and support the love for this beautiful organism.
Who are these beautiful creatures?
During every month of the year, bees are pollinating somewhere in each hemisphere. Visiting about 2 million flowers, foraging bees fly a distance greater than the diameter of the earth to produce 1 lb or 0.45kg of honey . Every protein, sugar, and lipid the bee consumes comes almost exclusively from flowers. And everywhere there are flowers, there are bees .
The “bee” falls under the ancestory Anthophilia with a lineage dating back 120 million years. In total, 20,000 species have been documented . In just the United States, there are atleast 4000 separate species of native bees. However, of the 4000 species, the most beloved and famous bee is European . Honey bees, like much of modern livestock and espresso ☕️, entered North America via the Atlantic Ocean 🌊🌊🚢.
Some of the Bee Decline Stats:
Maybe you have heard, the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee was officially labeled endangered as of March 21st 2017 . This comes nearly 3 years after formal complaints were filled to protect our Rusty Bee Friend in May of 2014:
“The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation together with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) filed a complaint today against the Department of the Interior and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service asking them to take action on a petition to grant Endangered Species Act (ESA) protection to the rusty patched bumble bee.” – The Xerces Society. Check these guys out they do fabulous work.
The vast range of the these bumble bees has reduced from 28 states to a mere 9 states. While the Rusty Patched Bumble Bee is first bee to reach the endangered list, several other species have long been accepted as extinct.
Numerous scientific articles have coined the bee decline as truly devastating. One study found a 96% decline of four separate bumble bee species across North America over only a 20 year span . In national survey of managed honey bees in 2012 to 2013, the study revealed a average loss of nearly 50% of colonies for all beekeepers in the study . In addition, high mortality of honey bees has been observed through out the world in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East .
What are the gastronomical effects?
35% of global crops rely on animal and insect pollination . Above carrying capacity, the Earth already struggles to produce crops bountiful enough to feed humanity. The truth is, modern capacity could not survive without this incredible organism. While, rice, corn and potatoes do not require insect pollination, nearly every fruit requires assistance from a pollinator friend. Bees pollinate nearly 80% of all flowering plants and about 75% of the fruits and vegetables in our diet . A world without bees is a world without cucumber, almonds, squash, and onion. Crops like blueberries, cherries, oranges, and avocados are 90% dependent on the pollination from honey bees. Do you like coffee? CHOCOLATE? Even meat and dairy industries are dramatically impacted due to the bee pollination of alfalfa.
Fact is, we do not give bees enough love. To appreciate the shear number of fruits and vegetables in our diet thanks to bees, see the pollinator partnership for a more exshaustive list.
What are the economic Implications?
The Guardian reported the annual global worth of bee populations as $6,164 per hectare (2.47 acres). In 2014, Each bee hive in the United States was valued at $200 per colony . For the total US market, bees pollinate more than $24 billion worth of crops each year. The Natural Resource Defense Council NRDC) reported that $15 billion of the market is contributed to honey bees alone. And About 60% of the honey bees in the United States are focused on the california almond industry valued at $4.8 billion annually .
There is no one cause for the bee decline with stressors including the widespread use of pesticides and fungicides, as well as the spread of viral pathogens and parasitic mites in beehives.
While there are many classes of insecticide, I will focus on the most well studied in bee decline, Neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids are a class of insecticides that work by affecting the central nervous system of insects which ultimately leads to paralysis. Neonicotinoids have undeniable toxic affects in bees and other highly important insects like worms. Many studies have indicated that even when exposed to sublethal levels (levels below agricultural administration), the flight and navigation of bees are severely impacted. For more information read the How Neonicotinoids Can Kill Bees: The Science Behind the Role These Insecticides Play in Harming Bees.
In the US and Canada, Neonicotinoids are the most widely administered insecticide. The vast majority of fruit and vegetable crops pollinated by insects are treated with neonicotinoids, including, but not limited to: apples, cherries, peaches, oranges, berries, and most leafy greens . The insecticide is unavoidable. Traces are found in rivers, soils, and the residues of numerous foods. The presence of such pesticides in water has been linked to decreased aquatic biodiversity . And unsurprisingly this poses a direct threat to everything in the environment including HUMANS…
One study has indicated that the exposure of bees to fungicides affects the maturation and behavior of native bee populations. The study found that bumble bees exposed to flowers treated with fungicide produced “fewer workers, lower total bee biomass, and had lighter mother queens” than the control bees . Fungicides have an apparently negative affect on colony success and the use of fungicides during peak bloom seasons will increase the overall exposure of bumble bees to fungicide. Exposure to insecticides and fungicides, increases the susceptibility of bees to other parasites and viruses
- Varroa Mites:
Dispersed across the world through natural and commercial transportation, the varroa mite originated as a pest to the eastern honey-bee colonies of Asia . Today varroa mites have spread globally. Australia remains the largest (human populated) land mass without these mites. Varroa live off adult bees: they decrease bee productivity, impact healthy development of the brood, and transmit viruses between honey bees . Most of the harmful honey bee viruses in the world are associated varroa. According to the USDA, varroa mites were the number one stressor for most colonies surveyed during the 2015 and 2016 quarters. There were 8% less colonies for the 2016 year contrary to 2015.
Viruses can infect the bee at nearly any phase of development. Of the 18 recognized viral strains, the following are the most common: Deformed wing virus (DWV), Black queen cell virus (BQCV), Sacbrood virus (SBV), Kashmir bee virus (KBV), Acute bee paralysis virus (ABPV), and Chronic bee paralysis virus (CBPV) . Spread of infected to non-infected bees occurs during pollination of common flowers. Evidence suggests managed bee populations harbor more pathogens than wild populations . Research suggests that wild bumblebee populations are disappearing at a similar rate to the managed honeybee, hence the rusty patched bumble bee.
Simple ways to Help our Pollinator Friends:
Because the exact causes are unknown and likely originate from multiple sources it is hard to tackle the problem with a single fix, but here are a few things that will certainly help!
Do not use insecticide. Especially outside!
While mysterious and creepy, bugs are vital to the ecosystem. As a culture we must break the habit of eradicating every bug we see! There are undeniably more species of insect in the world than all the vertebrate species combined. Considering what I just said, less than 1% of the insects in the world are considered nausence bugs . By trying to attack the nausence bugs like flys and cockroaches we are also negatively impacting all of our pollinators and other creepers and crawlers like worms vital to the maintenance of rich nutrient soil. There are more natural ways to deal with garden pests, see Organic Gardening Pests for none chemical solutions to your pest problems.
*Several European countries have banned neonicotinoids with measurable recovery to local bee colonies . Progress..!
Buy Local and Organic.
At the supermarket, shop Organic. As stated by the Organic Organization “Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge.” In addition the Organic label “emphasizes the protection of natural resources” and “plant and animal health.” Therefore, buying organic fruits and vegetables supports healthy farming practices and decreases pesticides from being introduced into the environment. Shop at farmers markets and small farms to support the local beekeepers. If there is a choice, always choose local over organic. The Organic Certification is often to expensive for small-scale farms, even though, small farms typically exceed the qualifications. Besides, supporting the small people helps everyone in the market.
Dispose of Honey Jars Properly
Disposing of honey containers can prove vital in preventing the spread of overseas spores and pathogens. Honey jars disposed outside and in land fills will often prompt the local bee populations to feed on the honey. There is a chance that this will infect the local colony and perpetuate the problem. In addition, spread of bee viruses is just another reason to buy local! Always wash honey jars before disposal.
Become a Beekeeper
While becoming a beekeeper is not a simple life adjustment, it has potential to be an incredibly rewarding one. Whether you live in the country or the city, beekeeping maybe a real option for you. While I have no experience, in my research I found that those with serious interest (and no experience) should find a beginners course and consider any number of personal and legal questions. For a greater understanding there should be a local bee association avaliable to answer your questions. Bees are not limited to the country. Like rural beekeeping, urban beekeeping provides a safe refuge for honeybees while supporting the health of park foliage and city gardens. For more info here is a post with tips for beekeeping in an urban place. Also this page on backyard beekeeping raised some very thoughtful insights.
Host a Hive
Do you have a backyard? If you are not ready to commit full time to beekeeping there is an easier solution. Bee Association’s are often looking for backyards to host hives. If you are interested locate the beekeepers association for your region. Besides hosting a conventional bee hive, you can easily create space for wood-nesting bees. Native nesting bees take no management unlike honeybees. Interested? The Chicago Botanic Garden wrote instruction for making a happy bee condo for all those native bees!
Grow Friendly Gardens
It is nearly spring in the Northern Hemisphere. This year grow gardens full of flowering plants like lavender, fuscia, and sweet pea. For a great guide on planting your backyard, “bee paradise” see the Honeybee Conservancy. Find flowers to keep your bee paradise blooming almost every season of the year! Look out for our friends and avoid killer flowers like rhododendron in the garden. Here is a fabulous source with more comprehensive list of toxic bee plants and the best alternatives. As a simple thanks to our bees, allow some of the garden veggies to go to seed. When these veggies “blot”, they provide ample pollen for the local bees to stock up for the colder winter months.
First and for most, we all need to educate our communities and children to love and to respect these beautiful pollinators! Ask your local authorities to grow bee friendly plants around town! Raise discussion about the real need for bees in our lives. Support petitions and letters to state senators to fund bee research and to expand efforts protecting our busy bees. Recognize swarms as an important part of the bee life cycle. If you see a swarm in nature allow the natural process, however if you see a swarm in an urban area call the local authorities to move the bees to a safer location. Spread the love of this creature through awareness.
As a final note, the world would be a much dimmer place without bees to pollinate the 400,000 flowering plants in the world. During your next meal, give thanks because odds are your food contains love from one of these guys 🐝. For more incredible facts about this beautiful creature here is this great page. And if you have time and interest read the Business of Bees. Stay Lovely!
Scientific Articles referenced above:
 Patterns of widespread decline in North American bumble bees. Sydney A. Camerona,1, Jeffrey D. Loziera, James P. Strangeb, Jonathan B. Kochb,c, Nils Cordesa,2, Leellen F. Solterd, and Terry L. Griswoldb
 Steinhauer, N. A., Rennich, K., Wilson, M. E., Caron, D. M., Lengerich, E. J., Pettis, J. S., … & Vanengelsdorp, D. (2014). A national survey of managed honey bee 2012-2013 annual colony losses in the USA: results from the Bee Informed Partnership. Journal of Apicultural Research, 53, 1-18. doi:10.3896/IBRA.1.53.1.01
*It should be noted this study was available as an Open Access Article by the faculty of Oregon State University. Open Access Journals allow everyone access to scholarly research “without financial, legal, or technical barriers other than those inseparable from gaining access to the internet itself” . I fully support the Open Access Journals and the transition of academic facilities to the open format.