“This is the biggest general threat to our food supply,” Kevin Hackett (U.S. Department of Agriculture’s bee and pollination program)
There are so many issues in the world today that need our attention. One of those issues that is near and dear to us is the current decrease of the global honey bee population. Most people are aware that today's bees are facing a huge problem, but some reports suggest between 30% -50% of commercial pollination hives may have died in just this last year. As new beekeepers, our own hive died this winter and as we look to fine tune our beekeeping practices, we are also looking for a deeper understanding of just why these bees are dying.
So just how big is the problem?
Every year bees die as part of the natural cycle. Beekeepers figure that about 5-10% loss is normal, but current losses are much higher (in some places up to 50%) according to a national survey. While commercial and home hives are the big concern this year, wild honeybee populations have decreased by up to 90% according to Target Health Inc as a result of colony collapse disorder. These losses are staggering!
Why should we care?
Unlike many other animals, our own lives are intrinsically linked to the health of the honeybee population, not only for the delicious honey and beeswax they produce, but more importantly for their amazing powers of pollination. According to the American Beekeeping Federation, honeybees contribute $14 billion to US food crop production and are solely responsible for pollinating some of our crops (like almonds). There are about 2.4 million honeybee colonies in the US, and 2/3 of these actually travel around the country every year to help pollinate our crops! That means that every year over 1.5 million honey bee hives are transported around the country. A single colony of bees can pollinate an acre of trees.
"If the honeybee becomes extinct, mankind will follow within four years."
What's the cause?
One of the craziest things about the decrease in bee population is the we don't know completely why. There are many theories and people often argue that several separate factors may in fact be contributing to the decrease, but there is no concrete, single source, which makes the problem that much more difficult to confront. Some of the main causes are disease, environmental change stresses, parasites, malnutrition, pesticides and genetically modified crops. Taken one at a time there is evidence that each of these culprits are causing some problem with the bee population, but the answer to the incredible decline is likely linked to several of these factors.
Disease - Israel Acute Paralysis Virus is often mentioned as a main cause for colony collapse disorder, and causes paralysis in the bees
Parasites - Bees are affected by many different parasites including varroa mites and a fungus known as Nosema apis
Malnutrition - Since bees are often transported long distances to help with pollination, they are fed sugar water and stressed during transport. This can weaken hives and cause problems over the long term that we may just be starting to understand. Destruction of natural areas also decrease the variety of food and habitat.
Pesticides, fungicides, etc - Pesticides are widely applied to many crops, and some pesticides are applied directly to bee hives (to help control varroa mites). There is an even greater concern over pesticides when multiple pesticides are used and can accumulate in the hive.
Neonicotinoids - (or neonics) are one of the prime candidates for the decrease in bee populations. These pesticides are spread on about 142 million acres of crops as well as in home gardening products. Three separate studies have named neonics as a prime culprit in bee population deaths. To learn more about this check out this article.
GMOs - Many of the GMO crops use a variety of pesticides, and some of those are wired right into the plants genetics. These companies claim that testing shows they don't impact bees, but when combined with other factors, GMOs may play a larger role than we realize.
What can we do?
- Continue to support research and studies to gain a better understanding of the causes behind the decline of bee populations
- Become a beekeeper and nurture your own hives
- Support seeds and crops that are grown organically and don't use GMO's
- Create habitat that supports bee populations by creating a bee garden or allowing parts of your yard to go wild
- Keep yourself up to date and aware of the changes in bee populations and help spread the word.
Armed with this knowledge, the new package of bees that arrived last week has taken on a different meaning. We've always watched our hive's behavior with fascination, but now we feel a sense of responsibilities for these wee, mighty animals that are struggling in an inhospitable world, and we'll do everything in our power to ensure that they continue to be part of the our future.