You may be familiar with bees for their ability to make honey, or perhaps you’ve had the misfortune of being stung by a bee. However, these represent such a small portion of bees’ role in nature and society. In fact, bees are essential to the success of ecosystems around the world, encouraging biodiversity among plants which then provide food and habitats for insects and animals. Because of this, bees are also crucial to our agricultural processes, whether they are pollinating the crops we grow for food or supporting plants that feed the animals we consume.
While it might be easy to assume that advances in farming technologies are responsible for our ability to produce the food we need, 70 percent of the main crops we rely on for food depend on insect pollination. Bees are by far the single most extensive pollinators on earth. If they weren’t doing their part to pollinate flowering plants, we would likely face a crisis that could push the human race toward extinction.
Unfortunately, honey bee populations have been declining at an alarming rate over the past decade. Some sudden and steep losses have unknown causes, such as the spread of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) which peaked in the winter of 2006 - 2007. While rates of bee loss attributed to CCD have declined in recent years, there are still many known factors that continue to hurt bee populations.
Let’s explore some of the natural and man-made threats to bees as well as efforts to support healthy bee populations.
Parasites are one of the most devastating natural threats to bees. Varroa mites have evolved so that they can only reproduce within a honey bee colony. The mites attach themselves to the body of a bee in order to feed. This creates wounds that can lead to infections and diseases in bee colonies, and if the infestation grows large enough, it can wipe out an entire colony. Acarine mites also pose a problem, as these infest a bee’s airways in order to lay their eggs, and crawl onto younger bees to repeat the process.
Bees also face brood diseases like American foulbrood, which are spore-forming bacteria that infect bee larvae through their food. The infected larvae will die, producing millions of additional spores, which can spread to additional larvae. While this disease does not affect adult bees, it can quickly spread through the young, weakening and eventually destroying the colony.
When non-native plants and animals are introduced to a bee colony’s natural habitat, they can destroy wildflowers and other naturally occurring wildlife that the bees rely on. An invasive plant species may take up valuable soil and water or block sunlight from reaching native flowering plants. The invasive plants could also attract more of the bees, yet provide less nutrition, which can also cause the colony to dwindle.
Climate change can also impact a bee population’s ability to maintain healthy colonies. As temperatures warm, flowering plants may migrate to north, toward higher elevations and cooler habitats. Extreme weather events and changes in average seasonal temperatures can also affect the time of year when flowers bloom. Unfortunately, this doesn’t tend to happen in sync with bees and other pollinators, and many varieties of bees cannot adapt well to the new temperatures and limited resources.
While plants adapting beyond bees’ capabilities may be the most direct cause of this particular threat, people contribute heavily to the climate change that causes this in the first place.
Many of our agricultural practices, which were invented to aid in overall food production, are also contributing to the decline in bee populations. Pesticides are one of the most common technological disruptors and can affect bees in many ways. The immediate effects when bees and other insects come into contact with pesticides may include agitation, vomiting, wing paralysis, problems with coordination, and death.
Pesticides can also cause chronic effects in a bee colony’s behavior. These impact their ability to regulate their temperature, forage or fly as often as necessary, learn and recall information, and communicate with one another. Bees may also be more susceptible to diseases and may not develop at a normal rate.
Studies have shown that a particular variety of pesticides, known as neonicotinoids, may be particularly effective at killing bees and negatively impacting their ability to reproduce. Aside from direct contact with treated crops, these pesticides also dissolve in water, which can travel miles away, exposing trees, flowers, and other plants to the chemicals.
Another common agricultural practice is to take large portions of natural land and convert them into farmland. This can have a significant impact on various native bee species by eliminating their natural food sources. Furthermore, the bees used in industrial pollination aren’t native to the United States, but were brought from Europe in the 1600s for their efficiency at producing honey and pollinating plants.
In their natural habitat, bees would have a diverse group of plants to forage through, and these plants would bloom at different times of the year. Because industrial farms are typically monocultures — meaning they plant just one crop — all the plants bloom at once, after which the bees’ food source is depleted. Thus, bee colonies involved in industrial pollination systems are transported across the country throughout the year, depending on which crops are coming into bloom.
This system puts an incredible amount of stress on bee colonies, disrupting the development of their food glands, making them more susceptible to fungal infections, and creating high concentrations of bees that allow for diseases to spread more quickly.
What Can We Do?
There are a number of global organizations dedicated to banning certain groups of pesticides that have been shown to harm bees. In many cases, major companies continue to challenge the science backing these claims, and your individual support of bee advocates could help bring attention to regulations surrounding pesticides. These organizations support more organic and ecological farming techniques, while minimizing chemical-intensive agricultural practices.
There are also groups that focus more on raising awareness of the many factors negatively impacting bee populations. Educating the public about our dependence on bees, as well as the many threats bees face, will be a major step in healing bee populations. However, these don’t always have to focus solely on bees. For example, programs that teach children about bugs of all kinds can help establish mindful, healthy relationships with our ecosystem from an early age.
There are many groups advocating for bees that have various focuses, and it’s important to do some research before offering your support. However, once you’ve found a group you believe in, you can help by signing petitions related to pesticides and other farming regulations, making donations in order to keep the organizations running, or volunteering to raise awareness about these causes.
As an individual, you can also aim to buy local, organic products from farmers who don’t rely on industrial pollination practices. Many organic farms don’t create the sort of mega farms that disrupt native bee habitats, and they can rely on wild bees to take care of their pollination needs.
If you have the space for a garden in your lawn, consider growing flowering plants that benefit bees. These include useful herbs such as thyme, spearmint, lavender, lemon balm, oregano, sage, and sweet basil. You can also fill your garden with shrubs, canes, and trees, like hibiscus, raspberry canes, blueberry bushes, apple trees, plum trees, persimmon trees, and more. These flowering plants will support your local bee populations, while also providing you with beautiful flowers, herbs, and fruits.
Keep in mind that the use of pesticides, even on a small scale, can disrupt the local habitat for bees as well as other wildlife. You should also avoid using chemical pesticides in your own garden.
If you don’t own property where you can plant your own garden, you can look into organizing or volunteering at a community garden. This can be especially helpful, since the benefits of community gardens extend far beyond simply helping native bees in urban areas. Not only will you be able to plant bee-friendly flowers, herbs, and vegetables, you’ll also take part in a community effort to choose more sustainable food practices.
Again, eating locally grown produce will directly reduce your community’s reliance on industrial agriculture, which is good for the bees and the environment in general. The community aspect can offer an opportunity for a greater number of people to take pride in practicing greener habits, and it will give you the chance to spread awareness of our need to protect and support bee populations.
There are many large- and small-scale changes that will need to take place in order to prevent bees from declining. Understanding the importance of bees is a great first step in solving this worldwide problem. While it’s still a good idea to keep your distance from an active beehive, perhaps you’ll learn to appreciate the work these little creatures do for us and the ecosystems they inhabit. And the next time you see a bee in your yard, consider yourself lucky they’re still buzzing around.