Spring 2017 PlushBeds Green Scholarship recipient:
University of Nevada, Reno
How to Solve the Problem of Our Disappearing Honey Bees
There has been a lot of concern lately on the health and safety of our bee population. At least 35% of the world's agriculture is dependent on honey, bumble, and solitary bees, and the pollination of around 80% of wild plants is supported by insect pollinators. The ecological importance of bees has been proven by their connection to many plant species. If they disappear these plants may as well. This effect flows both ways, the lack of plant diversity and spread could cause a lack of bees. The threats of Colony Collapse Syndrome, increased pollution, higher pesticide use, and a plethora of diseases and parasites have kept many of us on edge for the past decade worrying about our favorite little pollinators. The recent announcement of 7 species of bees becoming officially endangered in Hawaii has been a great wake up call to the importance of fast action to save these creatures.
So how far has the honey bee population dropped, and what can we do to help them recover? There has been much research and study done by the government and universities to track the number of bee colonies and their relative health all over the nation. These records and reports go back at least two decades detailing the populations of producing U.S. honey bees. One particularly by the US Department of Agriculture shows that, although there are rises and declines across the years, there are well over 2,500,000 active and producing hives in the US alone. The global numbers are even more encouraging; a report released by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in 2013 shows a graph of relatively steady rise in bee population over the last 40 years. This research suggest that honey bees are not only not disappearing, in fact they are thriving; however, this does not mean we should not fear for our furry little friends. There are many risks to bees today, and just as Colony Collapse caused a dramatic drop in 2008, and parasitic mites caused a dip in the early 1990s, there are many threats to the honey bees today.
Beyond the well-known already existing threats of Colony Collapse Disorder, Varroa or Acarine Mites, and Foulbrood, there are some relatively new things that are now putting our bees in danger of disappearing forever. The massive amount of pesticides that are being used around our crops and in our back yards not only kill the bugs we don't want, but also the ones we need. Neonicotinoids are a widely-used class of neuro-active pesticide used to kill the insects considered pests on our crops, saving up to one-fifth of the global harvest. It works by attacking the nicotinic acetylcholine receptors in the insects that are responsible for transmitting signals across the synapses and muscles, effectively shutting down the nervous system. The use of Neonicotinoids and other pesticides has increased since the 1990's, and has even been put into commercial use for seed dressings and additives in soil. The residue that isn't wasted off the plant or integrated in the soil can be found in the structure of the plant – including the pollen and nectar. Pollinators like bees are getting regular doses of neurologically damaging pesticides from the trace amount left in pollen and nectar of our plants; perhaps even from the ones we thought were safe in our gardens and parks.
There is another threat that humans create for the honey bee that is not as instantly noticeable. The carbon pollution, specifically CO2, that mankind has put into the atmosphere in mass, has damaging effects on plant and insect interactions. Although the reports done by independent scientists from around the world do not focus on bees, the effects are consistent across many species of insects, including several pollinators. For example, when the buckeye butterfly is exposed to higher levels of CO2 in the plants they fed on, they experienced a stunt in their growth, shorter life spans, and higher mortality rates. The effects were particularly dramatic in the case of this pollinator, but in other insects like leaf beetles and spittlebugs, the effects can only be seen over several generations. By the second generation there were already fewer and smaller larva with slower development, and the survival rate dropped each passing generation. The overall performance of insects is radically damaged by rising CO2 levels; however, not all insects are harmed by higher carbon levels. Parasitic insect performance can actually increase form this change in the environment. Parasitic mites that feed off the larva of the gypsy moth are unfazed, while their chosen pray becomes ever weaker. Although these creatures are not the common honey bee, their development, environment, and parasites are similar enough that rising CO2 levels can do the same things to them.
There are many things that humans are doing that can hurt the chances of the survivability of the honey bee in the future. The constant production of toxic chemicals and atmospheric carbon, the destruction of massive swaths of land ruining our biodiversity, the introduction of foreign species that often end up being invasive, and the now-developing global climate change the alters the range of parasites and plants are all things that threaten the honey bee that we as a species have done. But, there is one thing that research has barely touched that may be the greatest problem for the honey bee population in the U.S. The way bee keepers manage their crop of honey bees is a cause for some concern.
They constantly pump their bees with antibiotics and antivirals. Even in the years that had no cases of foulbrood, stonebrood, or dicistroviridae viruses, the keepers regularly have to tear apart hives and relocate them, and half the year the bees are given sugar water substitute to make up for the lack of honey, they are smoked, and manipulated, and placed in plastic containers. All of these things are very stressful and unnatural for the honey bee to go through, and yet humans do this in massive amounts. Almost every scientific report on the population of bees says that the over 3 million hives are keeping the bees from disappearing in the U.S., but they say nothing on the health and productivity of these hives. Bees are treated like live stock in this country, rather than a natural beneficial source. They are stripped of most of their honey every year, leaving just enough for them to survive the winter. Bees are placed in plastic boxes, which are known to release endocrine-disrupting chemicals when heated, but the boxes are cheaper and easier to slide the honeycomb frames out, so they are the ones used. The continual doses of antibiotics that are given to them actually create more resistant ‘super bugs' that are deadlier and impossible to cure, putting them at greater risk in the future. The disruption that these honey bees go through can cause shorter life spans, just like in another living thing, and can actually confuse the location of valuable nectar sources.
The main threat to the honey bee today is how humans see the world we are a part of. Humanity's habit of disrupting the environment for economic gain is what causes the honey bee to disappear. We need to change the way we think about this planet and the species we share it with, and as we change our thoughts we will change our actions. We need to replenish or replace the biodiversity that we have destroyed, and replace our current methods with more natural ones. Replace the plastic box with a wooden one, use natural predators instead of pesticides, start using carbon filters or alternative power, but most importantly we need to change our education. We need to start now with the next generation to show them the balance we need to have within our ecosystem.
Beekeepers have said that there are two types of people, those that like to keep bees to let them do bee things, and those that really want nothing but the honey at any cost. We need to stop wanting the honey and start wanting the pollination that they do. We need to keep them at the edge of our field to pollinate and nothing more. We need to keep them alive simply for the fact that they would be alive. We need to change ourselves to solve the problem.
Hunter - 2001 - Agricultural and Forest Entomology - Wiley Online Library
Effects of Air Pollutants on Insect Populations - Annual Review of Entomology
Tjeerd Blacquière - 2012 - Neonicotinoids in bees: a review on concentrations, side-effects, and risk assessment - SpringerLink
Genetic Literacy Project