Honeybees are dying by the thousands, and the federal government knows it. Beyond a general concern on the part of beekeepers and environmental activists, members of the U.S. government are aware of the rapid decline in honeybee populations and the potentially detrimental effects these trends could hold, should they continue.
Fortunately for Americans, legislative bodies and administrative agencies are recognizing and gradually working to reverse the problem. But why? According to Michael Schacker, investigative science writer and author of “A Spring without Bees,” honeybees are the primary insect responsible for creating the world we live in today. “Without the honeybee, it is likely that advanced agriculture, and thus civilization, would have never developed.”
Why the Honeybee?
Known to be one of the hardest working species on the planet, a honeybee’s reputable work ethic makes it a successful agent of change and rapid development. This is likely why our agricultural systems rely so heavily on honeybees as pollinators.
According to Daniel Stewart, local beekeeper and Sales and Marketing Manager for World Hunger Relief, Inc., a healthy beehive can host up to 60,000 bees.
“The collective action of that many workers — it would just be impossible to recreate,” Stewart said.
Stewart has been keeping bees for nearly two years. He recently took a test to be considered an ‘Apprentice Beekeeper,’ his ultimate goal being to hold the title of ‘Master Beekeeper,’ which typically takes about five years of training. Owning seven hives of his own, Stewart has been keeping up with the alarming decline in bee populations. As for himself and his own hives, he said It’s definitely a concern.
Though Stewart mostly tends to native bee species, such as bumble bees and leaf-cutter bees, he said he recognizes the importance of the non-native honeybee.
“We need the honeybees for agricultural purposes,” he said.
Stewart said honeybees originated in Europe and Africa and are considered to be better pollinators and producers than native bee species. “Without honeybees, some plant species we know today would never have existed. There would be no almonds whatsoever,” he said.
Dr. Julie King, lecturer of environmental law at Baylor University and former attorney, was also aware of the issue as it relates to almond production.
“We’re already seeing some of the effects of [declining honeybee populations] in terms of almond production in California,” King said.
If the effects of declining honeybee populations have yet to be observed in terms of almond scarcity, the issue is “certainly being passed on to consumer prices,” King said.
While other creatures such as butterflies and beetles also help to pollinate plants, honeybees stand out because they are both extremely productive and considered an “indicator species” within an ecosystem. Indicator species are used to “monitor environmental changes … and provide warning signals for impending ecological shifts,” according to a 2015 Harvard publication. This means that the a decline in honeybees can foreshadow the decline in other environmental elements within its ecosystem. King said one cannot look at a decline in bee populations at a surface level, and that the bees are vital to the successful upkeep of an overall system.
“We know that our ecosystems are all interconnected,” King said. “You can’t just look at a species and say that it’s not vital to everything else going on around it … As it relates to food, it’s an issue for every American.”
The prevailing theory among scientists, researchers and government officials is that the ultimate decline in bee populations in recent decades is because of a combination of multiple stressors, all of which are potentially deadly on their own or in combination with other factors.
Because research in this sector is largely underfunded and could face impending budget cuts, the certainty as to why the bees are declining is wavering. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates that “disease, pesticides, the effects of climate change, habitat loss and the effects of small population dynamics” could all be at play.
Colony Collapse Disorder
One prevailing theory for the decline in bee populations is Colony Collapse Disorder. This term is used to describe the sudden and unforeseen failure of a colony, often with little to no explanation for the root of the collapse.
Though the term is generally used to account for any unexplained colony collapses, “There’s a general feeling in literature that it’s the result of pesticides being used,” King said.
Many speculate that certain insecticides containing “neonicotinoids” are a primary cause for Colony Collapse Disorder. This chemical was intended to affect the central nervous system of unwanted pests, which, by default, included the honeybee. According to The Bee Cause, an educational group formed in 2013, “Many countries have banned such chemicals harmful to the honeybee, but in the United States, they are still widely used.”
There are two detrimental ways that neonicotinoids are thought to cause Colony Collapse Disorder, the first being that exposure to these harmful chemicals can alter the neurological functioning of worker bees.
Worker bees are the pollinators themselves — one of the many moving parts of the hive. While the queen bee stays back with her colony, the worker bees, all of which are female, leave the hive to consume nectar and eventually return to produce wax and honey. In the process, the bees spread pollen from one plant to the next, allowing for the reproduction of many of the plants we find on our dinner table.
In order for a worker bee’s foraging mission pan out successfully, it must be able to travel miles away from the hive and ultimately find their way back home. If the neonicotinoids found in some insecticides alter the brain chemistry of the worker bee along the way, the bee could either die immediately, or be handicapped and unable to find her way back to the hive.
Many of the worker bees will be unaffected and return to the hive; still, if five percent of the bees were to go missing, this could have detrimental consequences on the hive overall.
Fewer honeybees producing honey means fewer honey stores altogether, which could cause the colony to die over the winter.
“The direct cause of death for the hive was that they didn’t have enough stores, but really, that was because of this pesticide,” Stewart said.
The second way neonicotinoids are thought to negatively affect the hive is when the worker bees become contaminated and bring residues of the pesticide back to the colony.
Worker bees excrete wax in the shape of tiny cells so that themselves and other bees can use them to raise larva. When the larva matures, and the cell opens up, another bee is able to use that cell for reproduction. This is problematic if the worker bee that initially created the waxy cell obtained residues of pesticides.
“The pesticides build up inside the wax and eventually will poison the larva,” Stewart said. “This is something that a lot of bee keepers know about now and are responding to.”
Ultimately, Stewart said, the structure of a colony relies upon the health and success of many individual moving parts.
“We think about bees as individual organisms, but really it’s a super organism,” Stewart said. “On its own, a worker [bee] can’t survive. On her own, the queen can’t survive. They make decisions together.”
King said researchers are working to identify which insecticides are toxic to bees, which could help lawmakers establish specific restrictions on the production of certain pesticides.
Despite the complicated nature of the issue, King said, “That’s a development that is encouraging.”
The rapid increase in agricultural production in recent years necessitates the practice of commercial beekeeping. Schacker stated in his book “A Spring Without Bees” that migratory bees are transported all around the country in seasonal cycles to ensure that nearly one-third of all U.S. crops are pollinated.
Unfortunately for bees, the need for hard-working pollinators comes at the expense of their health. Many bee species are easily stressed by the demands of travel, which can lead to an inability to perform essential pollinating duties, or in some instances, death. While commercial beekeeping could ultimately be contributing to a decline in bees, agricultural systems could not produce food at the rates they do without it.
“[Commercial beekeeping] is necessary for agriculture,” Stewart said. “If you have a huge field of something, there’s just no way that it would ever pollinate itself.”
This a problematic cycle for both bees and consumers. “People are importing bees and colonies because of shortages of pollinators,” King said. At the same time, the importation could be contributing to the shortage itself.
The Power of the Pen: legislative action at play
To reverse the negative trend in populations would be a matter of intensive, costly research, proceedings through a complicated legal structure and a general understanding of the magnitude of the issue. Fortunately for beekeepers and average Americans alike, strides are being made to mitigate what could be detrimental consequences to the loss of pollinator species.
The Endangered Species Act of 1973 was passed by Congress in recognition of the ecological consequences of economic growth and development, and the value that threatened species inherently hold within society. Under this act, species can be listed as either “threatened” or “endangered,” and multiple parties must comply with the standards considered necessary for recovery.
In addition to simply claiming that a species is at risk, the federal government is collectively held to certain standards to protect that species, including its habitat. Section 7 of the Endangered Species Act imposes a duty on all federal agencies to consider the health and habitat of each species listed, avoiding action that could jeopardize the existence of said species. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service is additionally responsible for developing and implementing recovery plans for listed species.
Criminal sanctions are in place for those who “harass, harm, pursue, hunt, shoot, wound, kill, trap, capture or collect” a listed species. The Fish & Wildlife Service takes this rule one step further by more specifically defining the word “harm” to mean “significant habitat modification or degradation.” Thus, the endangered species as well as its habitat is protected. At the very least, punishments pose as an incentive for the general public to avoid harming the bees.
Just this year, the US Fish & Wildlife Service listed the rusty patched bumble bee. Being the first bee species recognized as endangered in the continental U.S., this listing was widely considered a turning point for bees.
“I think it’s momentous that we had a species of bee listed that’s present in the continental United States — that it’s the first time — and that there has been a big push to have bees listed,” King said. “Having declined ninety percent since the 1990s, and having significant depletion in its population certainly merited a listing.”
King said this is a turning point for pollinators because, “It opens the door to more species potentially being listed. There may be other [endangered] species, and there certainly are some that are seeing significant decline.”
The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s website states that they have yet to establish the recovery information, critical habitat rules, or conservation plans for the rusty patched bumble bee required by law, all of which would methodically help combat extinction. The lack of plans is likely because of lack of resources and funding, and the wide disparity among researchers trying to identify a distinct cause of declines.
“I would expect the rusty patched bumble bee will stay on the list for a while, and that there are still various reasons for its decline,” King said. “It should have a recovery plan eventually.”
In the meantime, “Listing does give the public more awareness,” King said. “Hopefully that will help with some of the other issues we face. Hopefully what we learn will translate well to the other species [of bees].”
If anything is clear to scientists and lawmakers, it’s that protecting bees is essential to maintaining our current levels of food production and consumption. Alternatives to bee pollination have been proposed, but nothing quite has the capacity to replace bees altogether. A 2009 article from PBS wrote, “The problem with other natural pollinators picking up the bees’ slack is that today’s agricultural industry has simply grown too large for them to keep up.”
While federal agencies work out the details of effective legislation in the face of potential budget cuts, bees and humans alike are forced to adapt to the looming population declines.
“There may be ways to help colonies adapt,” King said in reference to changes within the environment. Just as humans can change their survival tactics over time, bees can too.
This adaptation is temporary, though. “Sure, colonies are collapsing, but we’re able to keep up with it,” Stewart said, referring to commercial beekeeping and humans’ ability to “split hives,” creating more colonies. “But that misses the point that something is wrong. Something is making these hives die. We know this is a huge issue. People want to kind of cover it up right now.”
“From an economic perspective, we’re not in dire straights yet,” Stewart said. Many are keeping up with the bee declines as best they can, buying time until research can be conducted and change can be implemented.
Still, while it may seem like the consequences of lesser bee populations are only felt by agricultural producers, the average American could see changes within his or her immediate circle, in the immediate future, should trends fail to change for the better.
Ultimately, King said, “It really does relate to every American at the dinner table.”