Honey, We Killed the Bees

5 min Nature 28 May 2017

Why our fuzzy yellow friends are dying, and why it sucks

Honey bee populations around the world are declining. Research is still underway to figure out the exact cause(s), but we've got some pretty good ideas. The impacts of letting this continue unchecked will be dire, so it’s high time to raise awareness.

Why? Because bees are tied to nature like canaries to the coalmine. Their fate is dependent on us recognising our role as caretakers of the Earth. If they disappear, it will be because we failed them, and it'll be bad news all round.

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The Causes

Climate Change

“Climate change” feels like a dirty word these days. The meaning of the phrase hasn't sunk in. So let’s say that the scientifically validated warming of the earth has been linked to a decline in some flower populations, even when accounting for human impacts (1). One study found a 60% decline in some species over 40 years of warming (2), which meant their pollinators went hungry.

Some wild bee species have adapted to the changes in their available food sources, but others have not been so fortunate. Even then, those who changed it up only found themselves exposed to:

Disease

Bees are notoriously susceptible to pathogens and parasites as is. Sudden, dramatic changes in diet means a larger variety of bee species come in contact with each other, sharing flowers and territory.

While this sounds lovely, they’re all carrying parasites of some form, and so are the flowers they visit. This is a bit like when European settlers first arrived in Australia - more than half of Sydney’s Aboriginal population died from exposure to diseases they had no immunity to (3).

Neonicotinoids (and other pesticides)

Bees suffering from Neonicotinoids are a lot like a drunk bloke walking back from the pub. They become disoriented, and can’t find their way back to the hive. While the bloke can sleep it off or call an Uber, bees aren’t so fortunate. They die. Worse, honey bees seem to be attracted to the compound, with about 50% of the total wild bee decline being attributed to the use of pesticides (4).

Colony Collapse Disorder

CCD is the rapid, mysterious death of a bee colony. A colony collapses, generally, when the thousands of female worker bees, which make up the bulk of any given colony, fail to return home. CCD isn’t thought to occur because of any single factor at a time, but because multiple pressures force a hive past its breaking point.

In the Winter of 2006/2007 alone, more than a quarter of America’s 2.4 million bee colonies (each comprised of up to 80,000 bees) were destroyed by CCD (9). Bee colonies are always lost throughout Winter, and non-CCD losses are usually in region of about 15% of a given population. When affected by CCD, Winter losses, especially in more recent years, have risen as high as 40% (10). As the incidence of CCD has risen, Summer has begun to overtake Winter in terms of total hive loss, with CCD the culprit.

Nobody knows yet what is really driving CCD. We’re pretty sure neonicotinoids are a large factor, and that global warming plays a role, as do the effects of some pests and bad weather. There's also the fact that commercial colonies are repeatedly shipped around between crops as needed, placing enormous stress on them. More research needs to be done into CCD to enable the global beekeeping community to human-proof their charges, and slow or reverse the damage done.

swarm of female worker bees in flight

The Effects

The threat to bees is a threat to nature as a whole. However it’s not just the obvious problems of losing the bees, the flowers, or the treasure trove of Bee Movie memes that were rampant in 2016.

Crops

Bees pollinate the flowers of plants which provide a lot of what we eat - about a third of the average diet can be attributed to honey bees in some way. They also produce honey - US citizens eat about 600 grams of the stuff per person, per year. If everyone in the world ate this much honey each year, global yearly consumption would come out to just shy of 4,500,000 tonnes, which is more than the weight of the world’s heaviest building.

So if you're a fan of: potatoes, onions, cashews, strawberries, beets, broccoli, brussels sprouts, tomatoes, berries, eggplants, pears, avocadoes, mangoes, apples, and many more, then you should care. Check out the foods that are in danger here, along with their reliance on pollination.

Not bothered? Your wallet will be, when a third of your groceries become more expensive.

Other Food

The loss of bees won’t just cripple our access to the crops they pollinate. Other human food sources, such as meat and dairy, rely on these same crops. They’re not going to straight up disappear, but there’ll need to be some pretty genius workarounds to keep them going.

Industry

Beekeeping employs thousands of people, and the crops that bees pollinate are worth about $19 billion dollars to the US economy alone (8), and up to $200 billion to the global economy, as recorded in 2005 (10). These industries won’t simply cease to exist if the bees do, but they will feel the sting. The change will bubble out, hitting supermarkets, restaurants, cosmetics, clothing, manufacturing; further than we will fully appreciate until it happens.

jars of honey with honeycomb

What You Can Do

Spread the good word. Talk to people about the issue. If you liked this article, share it with your friends. Write a letter to you local government representative requesting funding for honey bee conservation. Understanding is a powerful catalyst for social change, and so is money.

With some luck, the wheels will start rolling, and we’ll start seeing more progress like the pending ban on neonicotinoid pesticides in the European Union, which occurred after a temporary ban from 2013 when nearly three million signatures were collected in support of the issue (7).

You can also start buying organic, locally harvested honey. Not only is it tastier, but there’s a much higher chance that the bees used were not exposed to any pesticides, and were treated well.

If you’re into gardening, plant native flowering plants in your garden, to attract and provide food for wild bee populations. Find out what plants you should look into.

If you want to take it even further, look into backyard beekeeping . There’s plenty of resources out there to get you going.

Most of all, bee the change that you want to see.

For something more positive, here's Japan being the innovative bastards they are and trying to replace bees with tiny drones.

 


Sources

(1) https://phys.org/news/2016-01-complex-worldwide-bee-declines.html

(2) http://science.sciencemag.org/content/349/6255/1541.full

(3) http://www.aboriginalheritage.org/history/history/

(4) http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2016/08/30/neonicotinoid-pesticides-bee-decline.aspx

(5) https://www.nature.com/articles/ncomms12459

(6) http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-22335520

(7) https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/mar/23/europe-poised-for-total-ban-on-bee-harming-pesticides

(8) https://www.honey.com/newsroom/press-kits/honey-industry-facts

(9) http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/silence-of-the-bees-impact-of-ccd-on-us-agriculture/37/

(10) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colony_collapse_disorder