The Honeybee Mystery

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Blog content provided by Christy Erickson

Bees are directly involved in the pollination of nearly 100 different food crops in the US, including apples, cherries, and onions. Alarmingly, they are facing potential mass extinction. First noticed in 2006 by professional beekeeper David Hackenberg, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is a major issue in 35 states and threatens to affect more. Scientists believe that CCD has three main perpetrators: pesticide usage, lack of nutrition, and invasive mites.

Bees, Please

Bees aid in the reproduction of flower-bearing plants by transporting pollen from one plant to another. Without the pollination process, many food-producing plants would soon die out. Life on Earth would change drastically if bees went extinct. One crop in particular, almonds, relies exclusively on bee pollination for survival. The American Beekeeping Federation (ABF) estimates that bee-reliant crops, such as blueberries, are up to 90% dependent on honeybee pollination.

Sobering Statistics

Bees are dying off in record numbers. In 2013, 37 million bees at a single Canadian beekeeping operation died in a single month. In 2015, more than 40% of all bee colonies in the United States fell. It’s estimated that beekeepers lose between 28% and 33% of their colonies each year – prior to the CCD outbreak, those numbers were less than half.

Pesticide Homicide

Since the 1990s, commercial and home gardeners have relied largely on neonicotinoid-based pesticides. These poisons, however, while beneficial to some foodstuffs, contaminate the ground and air and damage the bees’ ecosystem. Neonicotinoid residue is lethal to bees and other pollinators, including birds and bats. Non-commercial formulas contain up to 120% of the amount of chemicals approved for agricultural operations, which bees carry via contact back to the hive. Check out more tips on gardening here.

Pest Unrest

Varroa mites, an invasive species of mite that was accidentally introduced in the US in the 1980s, can eliminate a colony in less than two years if not treated. Unfortunately, Varroa mites are becoming increasingly resistant to synthetic miticides. Varroa-resistant bee stocks are emerging but have as of yet become widely available to beekeepers, according to The University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Nutrition Deficient

In April of 2015, Wellesley College released a study on how limited nutritional availability results in shorter life spans and impaired productivity in honeybees. The report illustrates a definitive link between poor nutrition in the larval stage and how adult bees performed important activities that affect the hive and pollination of human crops. Bees, like most other living creatures, require a specific balance of food and water to survive. Carbohydrates in the form of sugar, pollen-derived protein, lipids, salt, and minerals make up the bulk of bees’ sustenance. When these are threatened by issues such as over-farming or industrial intrusion into agricultural areas, bees suffer.

How to Help

While the average person can’t control widespread pesticide usage or reduce mite populations, there are ways to help. Planting flowering trees – fruit trees in particular – is an exceptional way to promote a healthy, localized bee population. Other plants that encourage bee activity include sunflower, lavender, rosemary, and mint. Those without a green thumb can still encourage an active bee community by providing a safe habitat for burrowing bees and buying locally-sourced fruits and vegetables.

It is never too early to get young gardeners involved in saving the bees — their futures may depend on it. The National Wildlife Federation suggests providing “bee houses.” This fun and easy to make DIY project is a great way to offer children a hands-on role in protecting this delicate species. You can find instructions here.

Bees are an important part of our environment. It would take several generations for bees to develop natural the immunities needed to adapt to current threats. However, we can protect them now by planting bee-friendly gardens and encouraging responsible beekeeping practices throughout North America.

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