When was the last time you saw a honey bee?
If you haven’t watched the Bee movie or snacked on a box of Honey Nut Cheerios lately, you may not have seen a honey bee recently. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t a part of your every day. In reality, the importance of bees is something you face every time you open your fridge door, sit down at a restaurant, or order your favorite fruit bar from Starbucks. And there’s one particular reason why: 30% of the world’s crops and 90% of the world’s plants require bee pollination to survive.
Without bees, much of the food and food products we enjoy every day would be gone. This is a devastating reality that becomes more of a possibility as honey bee colonies die in record numbers. But with a little awareness, it’s possible to turn the tide, according to Leigh-Kathryn Bonner, founder of Bee Downtown:
“If we get people excited for agriculture and learning where food comes from, we could really start to change agricultural processes, and make a really big impact on the world.”
So, what makes honey bees so special?
Many animals play vital roles in the food chain, but some would make the case that none of them are more important for a healthy environment and economy than the honey bees.
Designed to be optimal pollinators, bees are responsible for helping plants grow, multiply, and produce the food we rely on. By transferring pollen between flowering plants, bees ensure that the life cycle of flowering and fruit-bearing plants continues.
Why is that important?
Because in addition to being responsible for $30 billion a year in crops, bees pollinate 70 of the 100 crop species feeding a majority of the world. Without them, the global human population would struggle to survive, not to mention the many wild animals and plants that rely on the same crops.
Think about your favorite foods: strawberries, blueberries, apples, broccoli, melons, almonds (here is a full list). All of those crops are a result of the pollination of honey bees. In fact, bees are such a crucial part of almond production in California that 30 billion bees are used every year to help keep trees pollinated in the area. Why? Because California’s almond industry is worth a whopping $7.6 billion, and the industry relies so heavily on our six-legged friends that millions of them are trucked in every year for the largest managed pollination event in the world in what the New York Times called the Super Bowl of Bee Keeping.
But this false migration of the beehives isn’t good for the bees — and it isn’t sustainable. As beekeepers bring their hives in on trucks, the opportunity for the spread of disease, hive confusion, and high rates of malnutrition and depletion in the honey bee colonies continues to be significant. Bees aren’t designed for trips across the country — which many of them make multiple times a year as a result of the almond industry — and the stress can ultimately take its toll.
How the world is impacting honey bees
It’s no secret: Bee populations around the world are declining, and quickly. For honey bees specifically, a research study by the Bee Informed Partnership showed that between the 2017 and 2018 winter, the commercial beekeeping population decreased by 40.7% overall.
Why is this happening? There are many factors, but one of the largest contributors is the varroa mite, a parasite known for invading beehives and spreading diseases fatal to bees. In addition, the mites feed on the adult honeybees as well as the larvae and pupae. Plus, a varroa mite infestation can lead to impaired flight performance, a reduced lifespan, a poor performing immune system, deformed wings, legs, or abdomen, and decreased brood rearing.
Another case of bee population decline was documented ten years ago when it was reported that colonies across North American and Europe were abandoning their queen. No one is sure what caused the colony-collapse disorder, also known as the C.C.D., and a case hasn’t been reported in years, but the initial loss and unexplained cause still weigh on the minds of beekeepers, scientists, and sustainability advocates.
Humans also have a huge impact on available bee populations. In addition to the increase in the deconstruction of habitat and lack of forage areas, bees are being severely impacted by climate change, as well as bee-killing pesticides. In fact, insecticides pose one of the most direct risks to pollinators like honey bees, and if the current agricultural systems that apply pesticides in and around cropland areas don’t change, the effects could be devastating.
Here are a few of the ways insecticides are impacting bee colonies according to a study by Greenpeace:
- Decreased development rates in bees have been documented. In addition to increasing the time it takes for a bee to reach adulthood, insecticides also increase the rate of malformation in the cells inside the hive.
- Disrupted feeding behavior. Insecticides contribute to the interference of the bee’s feeding patterns, by spreading repellant, antifeedant, or reducing the olfactory capacity effects.
- Interference in learning. Insecticides can lead to negative impacts on the flower and nest recognition abilities, as well as the spatial orientation, of bees. Ultimately, this can interrupt foraging patterns and navigation.
When it comes down to it, there are a few things that are out of our control when it comes to helping the world’s bee populations rebound. However, helping increase the available habitats, while decreasing the use of pesticides, is a great place to start.
Another place to start? Finding a way to take the pressure off of bees to carry the heavy lifting for pollination. Just like an episode in Black Mirror, there are efforts to develop robotic pollination tools that can pollinate crops similarly to bees, and this could be a big help in de-stressing the current bee population. Walmart has already filed a patent for pollination drones, while a group of scientists at the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands is currently working on learning from the flight patterns of bees and flies to create additional pollination options. The goal? To create drones that could theoretically replace bees if a global crisis were to occur.
I'm a fan of Black Mirror, sci-fi and tech, but drone bees? No thanks. We better keep the real ones.
How to be an advocate for bees
So, what can we do to help?
Helping bees overcome the difficulties they face in the modern world is largely down to two things: Halting the continuation of the destructive, chemically-minded agriculture practices while also helping preserve natural habitats.
By turning to ecological or organic farming, many of the concerns of the dwindling bee population (such as biodiversity, bee health, population resilience, etc.) can be stopped.
Two steps will be essential:
- Eliminating the use of chemicals that harm pollinators and reducing integrated pest management.
- Increasing the practices that promote pollinator health, such as increasing plant diversity.
There are currently many organizations working on this problem on a larger scale. Some are actively trying to halt destructive practices, and others are raising awareness about how important bees are to pollination. Here are a few initiatives:
- Save the Bees: Part of the European Greenpeace initiative, Save the Bees is dedicated to changing the chemically-based agriculture system in Europe, one of the places bees are declining in record numbers. Through education and political outreach, Save the Bees aims to ban the most dangerous pesticides and preserve wild habitats.
- Honeybee Conservancy: Honeybee Conservancy is a charity bringing education to communities about the importance of bees. They also partner with gardens and urban farms to create bee sanctuaries that promote more sustainable farming practices.
- Bee Downtown: Bee Downtown is a unique initiative bringing beehives and bee conservation education to some of the world’s biggest corporations. Currently, companies like Delta, IBM, and AT&T partner with Bee Downtown to host rooftop beehives to increase urban bee populations.
Some fear that the bee populations will never recover and are making plans for how to survive in a bee-less world. But as more people become involved in efforts to cut agrochemical use, increase biodiversity, and plant more flowers to feed the honeybees, it’s still possible to turn the tide.
If you’re interested in learning more about bees, check out this Techrides conversation with Leigh-Kathryn Bonner. She has built a successful business around helping bees survive in the modern world.