When Honeybees Disappear

Posted by Science Explored on December 16, 2013

Most of us associate bees with painful memories of getting stung.  On the periphery, we know that they play a role in pollinating some of the crops we eat, but we seldom think much more of them.  As long as honey is stocked on supermarket shelves, all is well.  The reality is that bees are dying off in droves, and without action, many of the foods that color our dinner plates will follow in suit.  In fact, bees are so crucial to crop pollination that nearly 1 in 3 bites of food you eat today is due to a bee’s handiwork.

In 2006, beekeepers began noticing a disturbing trend.  Honeybees were vanishing seemingly overnight.  The hives they tended would be stocked with honey, yet devoid of life.  Not long after, researchers coined the acronym CCD – colony collapse disorder.  To this day, CCD is somewhat of a mystery.  Scientist across the globe have named a variety of culprits responsible for these mass bee deaths, but the research data are still inconclusive as to which is playing the lead role.  To put things in perspective, one-third of U.S. honeybees died during the 2012-2013 winter.  The die-off is so great that beekeepers are often being driven out of business.  Unsurprisingly, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Bee Research Laboratory is trying to unearth the cause.  Jeff Pettis, leader of the institute, is fearful that we may be too late to impact a real change if no action is taken soon.

Beekeeping Pollination
Honeybees are responsible for the pollination of many crops.  The visual above shows just how dependent (% of pollination done by bees) some crops are on bees.  Almonds, for example, are exclusively pollinated by these flying insects.

When honeybees were first imported to the United States in the 17th century, they thrived.  The vast, open fields represented a huge food web that lacked a substantial pollinator like the honeybee.  In modernity, the rise of powerful pesticides has reversed the prodigious growth bees underwent centuries ago.  Neonicotinoids, a group of pesticides that are generally safer for human use than other, older pesticides, may be one of the biggest dangers to honeybees.  These chemicals are used ubiquitously around the world to protect crops from unwanted consumption.  Though the European Union has succeeded in temporarily banning them to study the effect to bee populations, this is unlikely due to a lack of research in the United States.  Another culprit, the Varroa destructor, a savage mite that sucks the hemolymph (bee’s equivalent of blood), is working its ways through bee colonies.  These mites are easily communicable and go a long way to weaken populations so that cold temperatures, bacterial infection, malnutrition due to lack of variety of nearby flowering plants, and pesticides can strike the final blow a honeybee. 

The situation has become so dire in parts of China that were extensive pesticide use has virtually eradicated all bees, farmers have been forced to hand pollinate crops with brushes in tedious, backbreaking labor.  As a result, several universities such as Washington State University and Harvard’s School of Engineering have taken it upon themselves to discover novel solutions such as crossbreeding bee species to make a more resilient honeybee and designing “robobees” to act as surrogate pollinators.

Regardless of the solution, one thing is for certain:  if bee populations continue to decline, many fruits and vegetables we enjoy and depend on both economically and to feed the world could cease to exist.  However, even if a solution is reached, only one-fourth of the number of beekeepers that existed 15 years ago still works with bees today due to the loss their bee colonies.  Without well-trained beekeepers (a multi-decade long endeavor to achieve), even healthy new breeds would have difficulty surviving.