As long as they have existed, bees have been an important and integral part of the Earth’s ecosystem; they help flowering plants reproduce and make it possible for you to enjoy a tasty bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios in the morning. However, scientists have recently observed entire colonies of bees dying off without a clear explanation. Though a world without bees would let you enjoy a picnic free from the fear of being stung, it could have devastating consequences for nearly every land community in the world.
What is happening?
Over the last 10 years or so, scientists in North America and Europe have noticed entire colonies of bees dying off, leaving behind plenty of food, a healthy queen, and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining larvae. Called Colony Collapse Disorder, (CCD), this phenomena has led to the loss of billions of bees. The National Agriculture Statistics Service reported that there were 2.44 million honey-producing colonies in the United States as of February 2008, down from 4.5 million in 1980, and 5.9 million in 1947. The number of hives surviving the winter, a helpful indicator for CCD, showed that 23.1% of hives across the United States did not make it from fall 2014 to spring 2015. While this is down from nearly 30% losses in the 2006-2007, it still represents staggering drop in bee populations, with some areas experienced up 90% of hives dying off over winter.
Do we have an idea why these bees are dying?
No one is really sure why this is happening, but researchers have a few hypotheses. One of the leading explanations is that hives have been stressed due to exposure to pesticides. These poisons, which are meant to kill pests that destroy crops, do not discriminate which insects are affected. Another cause could be that the deforestation across the developed world has drastically reduced available habitats, and there is no longer an adequate amount of food or shelter for bees. This would be cruelly ironic, since by clearing land for farming, crops that are planted will not be pollinated.
There also may be a variety of natural causes as well. The varroa mite, an invasive parasite of honey bees, sucks the blood from adult drones and larvae, weakening the bees and shortening their lives. Introduced to Europe in the 1970’s and the United States in the late 1980’s, the nonnative mite has caused massive bee deaths, as local bees have no natural defenses. Diseases such as Israeli acute paralysis virus and the gut parasite Nosema could have also contributed to hive die offs. However, an increasingly likely explanation is that a combination of multiple human related factors have caused immune-suppressing stress on bees across the world, making them more susceptible to natural aliments.
That’s a bummer for bees, but why are they so important?
Bees and flowering plants have been working together for the last 100 million years. The bees are attracted to a flower by its nectar, a sugar rich food source which the bees bring back to their colony to create honey. When a bee lands on a flower to extract the nectar, it gets covered in pollen. Those pollen grains contain the sex cells of the plant. As the bees move from flower to flower, they distribute the pollen, fertilizing the plants, allowing them to reproduce. Over millions of years, bees and flowering plants have changed together so that their adaptations are mutually beneficial. Scientists call this coevolution. It’s been a lucrative partnership and has allowed flowering plants to become the dominant flora on Earth.
But there’s more to the story. Plants are the foundation of almost every single food web. Through photosynthesis they capture the sun’s light energy, combining it with water and carbon dioxide to use as food. When an animal eats a plant, they absorb that food for themselves to use as energy. When another animal eats that animal, the energy moves up the chain again. Without plants, there would be no way to get energy into the ecosystem. If you remove plants, there is no way for the entire ecosystem to get energy, and it collapses.
Which brings us back to bees. Since bees are the main carriers of pollen between flowers, their role in helping those plants reproduce is indispensable. Losing bees would mean there would be no way in which their pollen can be delivered, even if the plants themselves are perfectly healthy. If bee populations continue to plummet, there will be a point in which flowering plants will have no way to be pollinated and will not be able reproduce. Since flowering plants are a universal food source, their loss would be catastrophic for nearly every animal alive, including humans.
In fact pretty much anything you eat comes from a flowering plant. Apples, bananas, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, rice, corn (the products of which are in just about everything), and wheat are all flowering plants. Don’t eat your veggies? Pork chops or strip steak, come from a pig or cow that eats corn or grass, both flowering plants. Point is, plants are critical piece of our food web and that without them, no one, human or otherwise, would have much to eat.
What can I do?
Perhaps the best thing that you can do is provide a habitat for bees. Flow Hives are especially cool, which are engineered with a spigot that allows you to harvest honey without having to break apart the frames and smoking the bees, which can be extremely disruptive for the hive. Even providing a couple mounds of loose earth or a dead tree is enough to give a colony a place to start. If you don’t have the space for a larger hive, bee blocks are another great way to give bees a place to live. Essentially blocks of wood with holes drilled in them, bee blocks are easy to build and can be placed just about anywhere.
If you have a backyard garden or flower beds, include plants that bees like. Marigolds, clover, foxglove, zinnias, and hostas are all attractive to bees. Be sure to use natural pest control to keep poisons out of the food web. There are plenty of organic sprays available, or you could make your own. Spraying your plants with a cup of warm water that’s been mixed with a teaspoon of cayenne pepper or a few drops of citrus oil will usually be enough to ward off any unwanted insects. Perhaps the easiest option is to support your local beekeepers by buying local honey. It’s not only delicious and eco-friendly, but locally sourced honey also has the advantage of helping with the effects of seasonal allergies.
For a funny (PG-13 rated) overview of the importance of bees and their plight, listen to this incredible song “Save the Bees” by Flo and Joan.