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Bees play an extremely important role in the survival of our species. 70 percent of the main crops used for human consumption are dependent on insect pollination in order to reproduce and create fruit, and bees are by and large the most extensive pollinators used. Without them, the human race would very likely be facing an extinction level crisis. So it’s no surprise that in 2006, people became alarmed when they began to notice something strange was happening to honeybees all across the United States. Beginning in October, worker bees began to disappear, leaving behind their queen, her young, and a hive full of honey. For any of you that happened to see the story about the thousands of bees that followed a grandmother’s van for 24 hours because their queen was trapped inside, you’ll know that this is extremely uncharacteristic of them.
There was no evidence that these missing bees had died or that there was anything amiss with either their hive or surroundings. Just as strange was the observation that for weeks after the departure of the adult bees, the hives were left untouched by marauders that would normally have taken advantage of this unprotected resource. These include wax moths, which eat the wax combs made by the bees and deposit their larvae inside the nest. Bees will often rob from nearby hives as well, but those that had been deserted remained untouched by neighboring bees during this time. For the next several months, an estimated 162,000-218,000 colonies succumbed to this sudden collapse, formally known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). Fortunately, the epidemic that reached its height in the winter of 2006-2007 has since declined, but honeybees are still dying at an alarming rate. According to Greg Hunt, a bee expert at the Purdue University, as of 2015, “We’ve been seeing about 30 percent loss in an average winter.” So why are honeybees dying?
Problems Facing Honeybees
It’s now generally agreed that there are multiple factors that may contribute to bee colony collapse. Bees are susceptible to parasitic mites, fungal infections, and the various pesticides that we apply to our crops and our yards. A study conducted earlier this year showed that the majority of pesticides bees in nature come into contact with are picked up from urban areas, such as the insecticides used by homeowners and urban landscapers to control for mosquitos. But there’s one additional source of stress for bees that has received very little attention, which is the wholesale production and transport of bees for agricultural fertilization.
You might think that the fruits and vegetables we eat are the product of natural pollination from wild honeybees that live near farms and agricultural fields, but this is sadly often not the case. In fact, the sale of honey only accounts for a small amount of the profit of the bee farming industry. Instead, every year, more than one million bee colonies are transported all over the United States as different crops come into bloom. For example, bees that are raised in Florida are transported to California in the spring in order to pollinate almond trees. About 50 percent of the bees raised in Michigan are taken south for the winter to Georgia and Florida and are then moved back in the spring to pollinate apple and cherry trees. Bees are taken to pollinate squash in Texas, citrus in Florida, cranberries in Wisconsin, and sunflowers and clover in the Dakotas. This causes two big problems:
The first scientific study that looked at the effects of transportation on honeybees was conducted just four years ago, in 2012. Their results showed that the bees which had been transported had trouble with the development of their food glands, which they use to supply protein-rich secretions to all members of the colony as food. This means that transported colonies were overall less healthy than those colonies that had remained in one place. This stress caused by being hauled around the country has been shown to make bees more susceptible to fungal infections as well, and concentrating billions of bees into one place at the same time likely only helps the spread of pathogens.
When bees are taken across the country, it’s not to pristine woodlands and meadows with a diversity of flowers for them to pollinate, it’s to large monocultures – tracts of land dedicated to the production of a single plant species, which all bloom at once and then lose their flowers, leaving the bees with nothing to eat.
Honeybees – An Invasive Species
With the rate of honeybee death and the ill treatment they receive, people are reasonably concerned about the future of our food security as well as the ethics of even consuming food that’s been produced by organisms treated so poorly. But the honeybees used in industrial pollination aren’t even native to the United States. They were brought in by Europeans in the 1600s, and they are by no means necessary for the production of our food. There are literally thousands of native bee species that pollinate flowers as well. There are large, furry bumblebees that make their nests underground, squash bees that pollinate pumpkins, melons, and gourds, blueberry bees that vibrate their wings so quickly when feeding on nectar that a rain of pollen coats their fur, and cuckoo bees that lay their eggs in the nests of other, unsuspecting pollinators.
Many small organic farmers don’t even bother to bring in honeybees for pollination because the native bees do all the work for them. In large monocultures, this is harder to implement, but a recent study using a blueberry farm demonstrated that by planting adjacent fields with wildflowers, farmers could significantly increase their crop yield.
What Can You Do?
By choosing to buy local produce, you can bypass the bee industry altogether. If you own property, or have access to a public plot, it can also be a good idea to plant a garden with flowers that attract both bees and butterflies to help local populations of these organisms to thrive.To learn more about how you can help bees, check out this resource. The fact is, we need bees more than they need us, it’s time we started acting like it!
Lead image source: Fir0002