Bees are incredibly important to building sustainable ecosystems around the world. There’s a reason the term “busy as a bee” exists – these industrious insects are wholly responsible for pollinating crops nearly everywhere humans reside. While it may seem that they are just buzzing around, minding their own business, honey bees actually pollinate one out of every three bites of food we eat with their seemingly magical abilities.
However, the humble honey bee is in danger.
The world has been seeing a dramatic decline of honey bees and their hives for a while now. The data is quite stark: between 2005 and 2013, beekeepers saw an average 30% loss of honey bee populations every single year, the Washington Post reports. But when this number is broken down, it is clear that the 30% is simply just an average. Between 2012 and 2013, the U.S. lost a staggering 45% of its honey bee colonies.
And while this number has decreased since then, it is important to note that beekeepers are still experiencing a dramatic loss of honey bees year after year. According to Bee Informed, 2014 saw a loss of 34%, 2015 and 2016 brought a 41% decrease, and even though 2017 isn’t over, the U.S. has already seen a total colony loss of 33%.
Scientists, entomologists, beekeepers, and farmers the world over are grappling with the same question: Why are the bees dying?
Entomologists say Colony Collapse Disorder, a mysterious phenomenon that first came to light about 11 years ago, is partly to blame for the loss of honey bees. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency explains Colony Collapse Disorder as “the phenomenon that occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen, plenty of food and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees and the queen.”
When this happens, the worker bees simply disappear. As a result, the queen and the young brood are left behind to slowly die. Beekeepers first thought the worker bees left because of a virus, but when they noticed that very few dead bees were found in and around the affected colony, it was clear something else was to blame.
Eleven years after it was first described, CCD is still quite mysterious to many entomologists.
Colony Collapse Disorder isn’t the only explanation as to why beehives are dying off. Bee experts originally thought that hive losses only happened in the wintertime because of the temperature, but some bee researchers have found that this isn’t the case. It turns out that the demise of honeybee hives signals a larger problem with our nationwide agro-ecosystems – honey bees aren’t thriving in any temperature.
Dennis vanEngelsdorp, an entomologist professor at the University of Maryland who has studied the health of bee populations for the past decade explains: “We traditionally thought of winter losses as a more important indicator of health, because surviving the cold winter months is a crucial test for any bee colony. But we now know that summer loss rates are significant too. This is especially so for commercial beekeepers, who are now losing more colonies in the summertime compared to the winter.”
According to a recent Washington Post report, not only can common pesticides harm bee colonies, but also, “Endless rows of wind-pollinated corn leave bees of all types scrambling for food. Likewise, urban sprawl and grassy lawns make for homeless, hungry pollinators.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that honey bees add a whopping $15 billion worth of crops to American farmers every single year. Hive losses have a staggering effect on our health, wallets, and grocery stores. The USDA explains that if honey bee hive losses continue to hold at around 33%, the cost of honeybee pollination would rise. Consumers would then have to pay more at their grocery stores for the same crops; there just wouldn’t be enough to ensure the low prices we see today.
Despite these dramatic decreases, there are plenty of things Americans can do to help save the honey bee. National Geographic has published a list of action items we can do to save these mighty pollinators. They include:
• Plant species that are native to your geographical area in your garden as a way to lure wild honey bees to your yard.
• Keep your garden blooming all year round as there are different species of bees that thrive in different temperatures.
• Don’t lay mulch everywhere — leaving some dirt visible will give bees a place to burrow and nest their young.
• If you are growing a fruit or vegetable garden, border the crops with native flowers to improve the pollination of your crops.
• Avoid using unnecessary pesticides on your lawn.
Being a busy bee is a hard job, and the honey bee needs our help. Staying informed about the plight of the honey bee is a great first step but above all, it is crucial to learn about organizations that support honey bee health and get involved!
Greg Long has nearly completed his three-year journey to becoming a Master Beekeeper. He’s currently enrolled in Master Beekeeping apprentice classes through the Oregon State Master Beekeepers’ Program. With the help of his mentor, Greg has honed his beekeeping skills and raised a hive of healthy, happy bees.
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