Worldwide, bee populations are suffering significant decline and rather than a single cause, it seems to be the result of multiple factors working in concert. The U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a reportin 2012 citing a “complex set of stressors and pathogens,” and calling for “multi-factorial approaches to studying causes of colony losses,” yet stopped short of making any policy recommendations. The EPA has, sadly, been woefully lackadaiscal in taking steps to stem the problem. Perhaps that will change with the recent momentous suit filed by beekeepers and environmental groups against it for failing to protect bee populations.
Nearly 40 percent of U.S. domesticated hives did not survive this past winter, making it the worst loss to date. Far more than just giving us honey, bees are a crucial player in our food production; they are responsible for pollinating many flowering plants–by some estimates, almost one out of every three bitesof food that we eat was produced with the help of these natural pollinators. Cashews, beets, broccoli, cabbage, watermelons, cucumber, strawberries, macadamia, mangoes, apricots, almonds are just a few of many of the delicious crops our six-legged worker friends toil on.
Domesticated bees are not the only ones being affected either—wild bee populations have decreased by an alarming 90% over the last 50 years. The ecological implications are nearly catastrophic; so are the resultant economic and food supply concerns. The World Conservation Union predicts that 20,000 flowering plant species will disappearin the next few decades as a result of bee losses.
Bee die-off is in part attributed to the appropriately-ominously-named phenomenon of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) in which bees fly off en masse and never return to their hive. Climate change, habitat destruction, pesticides, and disease all seem to have an influence on the occurrence of CCD and are factors that often interplay with each other–the worldwide bee population decline speaks to the multiplicity of causes not endemic to specific regions.
Climate change and habitat destruction are affecting ecosystems as a whole and bees in particular. Erratic weather patterns have an indelible effect on the schedule of flowering plants. Plants may blossom early, before honeybees can fly, or may not produce flowers at all, resulting in no pollen for the bees.
The impact of pesticides on bee depopulation has been widely examined by researchers. Jeff Pettis of USDA’s Agricultural Research Service and his team found that a pesticide called imidacloprid is weakening the bees’ immune systems and allowing infectionsto spread through hives. Another group of pesticides, extremely commonly-used worldwide, the neonicotinoids, chemically-related to nicotine, could harm bees by disrupting the navigational and learning abilities they use to find flowers and make their way back to the hive. The neonicotinoids have often been likened to “nerve agents” for the neuroactive effects they have on bees. In a landmark move, the European Union passed a measure last month to provisionally banthe use of neonicotinoids for the next 2 years. By contrast, the EPA continues to greenlight chemicals widely recognized even by the EPA itself as “highly toxic to bee health,” allowing the use of the pesticide sulfoxaflor manufactured by the Dow Chemical Company.
In addition to their neuroactive effects, pesticides also tie into another element in the explanatory chain–disease–by decreasing pathogen resistance. The blood-sucking parasite, the Varroa mite, is one of the most virulent pests of bee colonies. It is dangerous not only in its own right, but also in that exposes hives to other viruses too. Another suspect is the Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) toxin in the pollen of genetically modified corn, which German scientists found compromised bee immune systems. The bacterial disease European foulbrood is yet another pathogen.
Communities worldwide are astir about the danger of bee extinction and the buzz is certainly gaining in volume, with many states, including Oregon,passing measures to ban the use of certain pesticides. Clearly, the battle against CCD will have to be waged on a multiplicity of fronts.
Ph.D. Candidate in Anthropology, Bulgarian, writer, vegan, cruciverbalista, queen of puns. Mischief, Mayhem, Mangia!