If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.
~ Albert Einstein
WHY ARE BEE POPULATIONS DECLINING?
Bee populations around the world are in freefall. For the past few decades, global reports have shown that bee populations are in precipitous decline. In North America, since the 1980s, four common species of bumblebee have declined in absolute numbers by 96 percent, and the geographic range of these four species has declined almost as dramatically. In Great Britain, out of twenty-five species of bumblebee, three are already extinct and a dozen others have shown population declines of up to 70 percent.
This is an alarming trend. Bee populations are a crucial component of global ecosystems as pollinators, transferring pollen from the stamen (the “male” part of a plant) to the pistil (the “female” part) and thus allowing for plant propagation. Other factors such as wind and rain also help in this transfer of pollen, but bees account for a significant percentage. Up to 90 percent of commercial plants worldwide are pollinated by bees, and up to a third of all human food products originate from plants pollinated by bees — most fruits, many vegetables, some grains including grains used in animal feed, and more. Honey bees and bumblebees are both effective as pollinators, depending on local conditions such as temperature; bumblebees are more effective in colder climates, and they are hairier than honey bees and can thus carry more pollen.
Various factors might account for this phenomenon, generally known as “colony collapse disorder.” New diseases that affect bees, rapidly changing habitats particularly around urban areas, and the increasing use of pesticides all play a role. Specifically, some species of bumblebee that are in severe decline have been found to be infected with a pathogen called Nosema bombi, which reduces the lifespan of individual bees, resulting in smaller colony sizes. Also, bumblebee populations have exhibited lower genetic diversity, which render the bees less effective in fighting off new pathogens, resisting pollution, and evading predators. Even cell phone radiation has been cited as a possible cause.
One harmful factor has been the varroa “vampire” mite, which literally sucks the juice out of bees. Beekeepers, however, often fight this predator with pesticides — which also have negative consequences for the bees themselves. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has stepped in, and is attempting to inform beekeepers about the latest research in combating mites and other factors that are dangerous to bees.
Increased pesticide use in general has been cited as a major factor in some regions. For instance, in the past few years, a new bacterium has appeared in Florida, threatening the orange crop in that state. Given the importance of oranges to Florida’s economy, pesticide use has increased dramatically to combat the bacterium, but as a result the state’s bee population has been affected. An examination of various components of bee colonies in a few dozen U.S. states and Canadian provinces — hives, honey, wax, pollen, and bees themselves — has unearthed over a hundred different pesticides. The prevalence of such toxic residues is troubling.
It is critical to find solutions to this problem before our own food cultivation is negatively affected. Efforts in this direction might begin with greater public awareness of how critical pollinating bees are to our food chain. Most people think of bees as a nuisance, and when they do research on bees, the aim is usually to find out how to get rid of them. Many beekeepers report difficulty in finding locations to raise their bees that are acceptable to neighboring communities, and there have even been reports of vandalism at some hives. Some people are disturbed by overblown reports of “killer bee” invasions; others who get stung by bees attempt to sue a nearby beekeeper. We should be encouraging beekeepers to continue with their important business, rather than driving them to other lines of work.
Some efforts are being made to preserve or restore an environment that is friendly to bees. Pollinating bees can be encouraged through the establishment of wildlife preserves, the creation of diverse landscaping particularly in built-up areas, the preservation of prairie lands, and other efforts. This kind of environmental preservation has countless benefits, other than encouraging bee populations. Also, more research could be done on finding alternatives to pesticides, or finding effective pesticides that are not harmful to bees.
Some parasites that have decimated bee populations have been isolated, and the infected bee colonies treated successfully.
Despite these successes, bee populations continue to drop, and more research is needed to ensure that these pollinators can continue to perform their all-important task.