Honey Bee’s are essential to our survival on this planet. They are a key component for pollinating much of the food that we eat every day, responsible for the pollination of approximately one third of our food crops. Albert Einstein once said:
“If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live”
This is a scary thought considering that we have been losing the honey bee population at alarming rates over the past 70 years. In the 1940’s there were around 6 million bee colonies in the US but this has declined drastically in recent years to about 2.5 million colonies.
Even scarier than this is what has been going on in the last decade. In 2006 beekeepers across the US started reporting 30-90 percent losses of their bee colonies and this has continued at a steady pace since then. According to an annual survey conducted by the Bee Informed Partnership and Apiary Inspectors of America, from April 2014 to April 2015 approximately 40 percent of bee colonies have been lost amongst US Beekeepers.
Researchers all over the globe are trying to determine why we are losing so many bees every year so that we can fix this problem. So far they haven’t been able to pinpoint the loss to a single factor but there are several assumptions as to why this problem is occurring.
Changing Landscapes Causing Malnutrition
In order for bees to have a healthy life they need to have access to a variety of plants and trees to feed on. This used to be easily achieved due to the diversity of plant species available for bees to feed on but this has changed quite dramatically in the past few decades.
With urbanization occurring faster than ever before, previous fields full of valuable food for bees have been destroyed to make way for our cities. On top of this, we are also destroying even more fields that used to provide nourishment for bees to plant soybeans and corn, two crops which do not provide any value for bees.
Increased Fungicide Use
Fungicides are used on many crops that bees are needed to pollinate. Studies have shown that when healthy bees feed on pollen that was sprayed with fungicide, they have a much higher chance of being infected with Nosema, a parasitic fungus which can wipe out an entire bee colony in just 8 days.
Of all the diseases that honeybees are exposed to, Nosema is the most common. This disease affects the bees ability to digest pollen, causing them to die much quicker.
Parasites Attacking Bee Colonies
One of the main problems affecting bee’s on such a massive scale are parasites that have been attacking them at higher levels recently. One parasite in particular, known as the Varroa Mite, has undoubtedly contributed to the massive die off that bees have been facing.
The Varroa Mite is native to Asia and has made it’s way to North America sometime in the late 1980’s. Honeybees in Asia have evolved to create counter attacks against these mites, however, North American honeybees have yet to adapt.
These mites can only thrive in a bee colony where they attach themselves to individual bees to feed on their blood. While doing so they also spread diseases and viruses among the colony such as varroosis and deformed wing virus. If they are present in significant numbers within a hive, the Varroa mite can quickly kill the entire bee colony.
Scientists agree that this is one of the leading causes for bee colony decline in recent years. In Ontario, research has shown that Varroa Mites are the leading cause for collapsed colonies within the province.
What is being done to combat Varroa Mites?
There are treatments to combat this mite but so far there hasn’t been anything of significance to completely eliminate them. In fact, varroa mites are actually developing a resistance to these treatments.
Some smaller beekeepers don’t even treat this problem because they are trying to develop bee colonies that are resistant to the mite. This is a well intentioned effort, however, bees that are infected with this mite are spreading it to other healthy colonies, thus killing even more colonies.
Commercial beekeepers on the other hand are treating their colonies for these mites with pesticides but often times these pesticides are either ineffective or detrimental to the bee colony itself.
Increased Insecticide Use
Another main factor that can be attributed to bee colony decline is the use of certain insecticides. According to a study conducted by Harvard University, when bees are exposed to two neonicotinoids, which are the most widely used insecticide type around the world, their colonies have a small chance of surviving. The studies showed that half of the colonies exposed to this type of insecticide died while none of the colonies that were free from this insecticide died.
This study disproved previous beliefs that neonicotinoids make bees more vulnerable to dangerous parasites and pests by damaging the bees immune system. Instead it suggested that neonicotinoids impairs the bees neurological functions such as memory, behaviour and cognition which can cause them trouble when trying to navigate back to the hive.
What measures are being taken to limit the use of neonicotinoids?
With conclusive research showing that neonicotinoids are contributing to the rapid demise of bee colonies, some countries have decided to ban the use of certain neonicotinoids.
In Europe, for example, The European Commission has restricted the use of 3 neonicotinoids (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam) in 2013 for treatments on crops that have a high chance of coming in contact with bees.
The government in Ontario is also taking measures to reduce neonicotinoid use on farms, making it the first province in North America to do so. The plan is to reduce neonicotinoid coated corn and soybean seeds by 80 percent before 2017.
Colony Collapse Disorder
Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is a phenomena which has been occurring for the past decade. A hive is considered to have suffered CCD if there are a very low amount, or no worker bees present in a colony and their dead bodies can not be found. In hives that have succumbed to CCD, there is an abundant food source present and the queen bee, along with some immature bees, are still occupying the hive. Due to the loss of worker bees, these hives die off very quickly.
There is no direct known cause for CCD at the moment but researchers are examining several factors such as malnutrition, fungus, parasites, pesticides and beekeeping practices. The general consensus in the scientific community is that one single factor can not be the cause of CCD, instead they believe that it is a combination of two or more of the factors listed above, in no particular order.
In 2007, there was a survey of hobby and commercial beekeepers conducted in the US with the hobby beekeepers indicating that malnutrition and starvation was the main cause of CCD while commercial beekeepers believe that the Varroa mite is the main cause.
What measures are we taking to counteract CCD?
Countries all around the world that have been exposed to CCD have been putting forward initiatives to reduce occurrences.
For example, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) created a CCD Action Plan in July 2007. This plan consists of 4 main components for understanding and combatting the problem; data collection, sample analysis, research based on findings and preventive measures.
The United Kingdom is another example of a nation that has been working on understanding and resolving CCD. From 2007-2008 the United Kingdom realized a loss of 15 percent of their bee population. As a result, they established a national bee database to monitor CCD closely.
What This Means for Us
When a bee colony dies, beekeepers are forced to split their current colonies and buy a new queen bee for around $20. The problem is that these new split colonies require time to get going and do not offer the same productivity in pollinating farmers fields. As a result they are in lower demand and beekeepers take a financial loss.
It is also affecting farmers that grow bee-dependant crops with higher prices to rent bees for pollination. Farmers used to pay around $70 for a healthy bee colony to pollinate their fields but now with the short supply of healthy colonies the price has skyrocketed to around $175, ultimately affecting the price we pay for food as well.
More importantly, the rapid die-off of bees is detrimental to our survival on this planet. As mentioned above, bees are required for the pollination of one third of our food crops so losing them will create global food shortages.