What’s Happening to The Honey Bees?
Honey bees, both domestic and wild, perform about 80 percent of all pollination worldwide. A single bee colony can pollinate 300 million flowers each day. Grains are primarily pollinated by the wind, but fruits, nuts and vegetables are pollinated by bees. Seventy out of the top 100 human food crops- which supply about 90 percent of the world’s nutrition- are pollinated by bees. So, believe it or not, you have a bee to thank for every one in three bites of food you eat! Unfortunately, bees are dying off at an alarming rate, with serious consequences for our natural world. They play a vital role as pollinators and losing them would have a devastating ripple effect across all ecosystems.
What’s killing the bees?
Entomologists are currently studying the reasons behind the enormous bee die-off happening worldwide. Beekeepers across the U.S. lost 45.5% of their managed honey bee colonies, since 2020. Most recent evidence points to a combination of factors as the culprit including:
- Diseases- Weakened immune systems leave hives susceptible to bacterial and viral diseases. Two of the most well-known diseases to infect bees are American Foulbrood and Deformed Wing Virus. American Foulbrood affects larvae less than a day old, preventing them from surviving until adulthood, while Deformed Wing Virus is transmitted through Varroa mites and prevents the bees from being able to fly.
- Parasites- Current research indicates that parasites, and the diseases they carry, are one of the main threats to the lives of honey bees. The most dangerous parasite threatening beehives currently is a mite with a descriptive name, Varroa Destructor. Commonly known as Varroa mites, these parasites often infect bees before they can even emerge as adults. Their parasitic relationship with the bees is similar to that of ticks and mammals; the main issue lies in the diseases the mites carry. When a hive is already weakened, a Varroa mite infestation can wipe it out. Other parasites involved in collapsing hives include the small hive beetle, Aethina tumida and Nosema spp., a microsporidian gut parasite.
- Poor Nutrition- Some human farming practices are making it more challenging for the bees to have a well-balanced diet. This happens when only one crop is grown on a piece of land, and it limits the bees’ diet to one type of pollen for long periods of time. Think of it as a human only eating one type of food for three months, not very healthy! These malnourished bees are more susceptible to chemical pesticides, pathogens and parasites, as their immune systems aren’t as strong.
- Pesticides- Pesticides are also a huge contributing factor to the honey bee decline. The most studied chemical culprit is a class of agricultural pesticides called Neonicotinoids. These chemicals are systemic, meaning the plant takes them into its vascular system, and spreads it to all tissues. Studies have found trace amounts of pesticide in pollen grains, bees bring pollen back to their hives for food- one pollen grain with trace chemicals wouldn’t be an issue, but scientists have found that the chemicals accumulate to critical levels within the beeswax. Pesticides also interfere with bee communication, which is almost entirely reliant on chemical and physical signals. The chemicals in pesticides have been shown to alter their foraging behavior and their larval development as well. Pesticides lower the bees’ immune systems, weakening the hive and leaving it wide open to parasitic infection.
Why do we need the bees?
Honey bees are big money makers for U.S. agriculture. These hardworking insects produce six hive products- honey, pollen, royal jelly, beeswax, propolis and venom- all collected and used by humans for various nutritional and medicinal purposes. Honey, of course, is the most well-known and economically important bee product. In the last couple of years honey bees have made 157 million pounds (per year). With the cost of honey at $1.97 per pound, that’s a value of a little over $339 million.
After honey, beeswax is the second most important hive product. Beeswax is popular for making candles and as an ingredient in artistic materials and in leather and wood polishes etc. The pharmaceutical industry uses the substance as a binding agent, time- release mechanism and drug carrier. Beeswax is also one of the most commonly used waxes in cosmetics.
The greatest importance of honey bees to agriculture isn’t a product of the hive at all. It’s their amazing work as pollinators. This agricultural benefit of honey bees is estimated to be between 10 and 20 times the total value of honey and beeswax. In fact, bee pollination accounts for about $15 billion in crop value. Pollination is also important to 250,000 species of flowering plants that depend on the transfer of pollen from flower anther to stigma to reproduce.
What can we do to help?
- Go chemical-free: Synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, herbicides, and neonicotinoids are harmful to bees. Avoid treating your garden and green spaces with synthetics. Instead, use organic products and natural solutions like compost to aid soil health and adding beneficial insects that keep pests away like ladybugs and praying mantises.
- Plant a bee garden: One of the largest threats to bees is a lack of a safe habitat where they can build homes and find a variety of nutritious food sources. By planting a bee garden, you can create a habitat with plants that are rich in pollen and nectar. You don’t need a ton of space to grow bee-friendly plants, gardens can be established across yards and in window boxes, flower pots and planters. You can also get involved with local organizations to find opportunities to help public spaces be more bee friendly.
- Provide trees: When a tree blooms, it provides thousands of blossoms for bees to feed on. Trees are not only a great food source for bees, but also helpful to their habitat. Tree leaves and resin provide nesting material, while natural wood cavities make great shelters.
- Become a citizen scientist: Join a global movement to collect data on the bees! Gather photos and other information about native bees and upload them to the iNaturalist app on your phone. That way we can learn about the bees in various areas and cities and find more opportunities to help them.
- Create a bee bath: Fill a shallow bird bath or bowl with clean water and arrange pebbles and stones inside so that they break the waters surface. Bees will land on the pebbles and stones to take a nice refreshing drink.
- Donate: The Bee Conservancy Sponsor-a-Hive program creates safe havens for bees in underserved communities by supplying the tools, gear, and education needed to successfully home bees. Donate to the program or apply to receive a home for bees.
- Support Local Beekeepers: The easiest way to help is by buying locally-made honey and beeswax products. You can also donate to local beekeeping environmental groups to help their programs grow.