Pollinators In crisis: what a bee decline could mean for our planet
It’s true. The world could be facing a major honey bee population crisis. The EPA reported that honeybee populations across the country have experienced a 40 percent decline in their hives since 2006. There are specific years since that time in which losses have been even higher. What is causing these declines and what happens if they continue? We’ve got the facts for you.
Putting Numbers To BeeMagedon
So… how bad is the pollinator crisis? Honeybee declines in other countries have mirrored what’s been seen in the United States. Europe overall has seen a 25 percent decline in their commercial bee population since 1985 and the UK specifically has seen a 45 percent decline since 2010.
Sure, these decline means less of the one thing that bees are known for– honey production. However, the impacts go a lot further than that. Bees are one of the world’s great pollinators. Some experts estimate that they pollinate as much as a third of the world’s food. A 1994 report that was posted on the website for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that U.S. bees alone pollinated upwards of $10 million in crops at that time. Their pollinating impact surely has grown since that time.
What’s Hurting The Bees?
Experts believe that a number of factors are causing the bee declines. At the top of the list of suspects is a parasite called the varroa mite, a second parasite called nosema, and an emerging disease called the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus.
In addition to these factors, humans may be playing a role with what’s going on. Insecticides applied to crops to keep destructive insects at bay may be poisoning honeybees as well. Bees may also be under stress as beekeepers move and manage their hives, a factor that could be particularly true for larger commercial hive businesses that are relocated again and again to pollinate orchards and other agricultural spaces.
Lastly, bees are likely impacted as humans are changing their habitats. In some cases, plants that were formerly providing nutrition for bees and hives have been replaced by less nutritious counterparts or have been entirely removed. One of these examples are fields of flowers or plants that are turned into weed-free lawns or paved spaces in suburban communities.
Each Bee Species Responds Differently
Interestingly, scientists are seeing that not all honeybees are responding to their stressors in the same way. Studies of this effect were isolated in Michigan, though it is expected that it is mirrored in other U.S. regions and around the world. In Michigan, there are 19 species of bumblebees, 12 of which were examined for the study. Comparison measurements were taken before and after the year 2000.
So what do the numbers show? They indicate a decline of 65 percent in the yellow bumble bee and a corresponding decline of 71 percent for the yellow-banded bumble bee. Declines for the American bumblebee and the rusty-patched bumblebee sat at 98 percent and 100 percent respectively. However, the researchers found good news too. There were some increases. The common eastern bumble bee increased by 31 percent and the brown belted bumblebee increased by ten percent.
Why the difference? In this study, after examining all of the bees, scientists noticed that more successful bee species had visited a wider variety of plants. They’re not cut off from a food source if a plant disappears entirely and they can choose from another plant if the one they like isn’t growing as much due to a shorter spring or a hotter summer. There may be other factors at work also.
Farmers have picked up on this research. They’re now relying on different bee species to the boost productivity of their crops and the profitability of their business. Washington farmer Jim Freese exemplifies this approach. When he saw that his cherry trees weren’t producing well, and his profits were suffering, he tried a new bee as a pollinator. These blue orchard bees supplemented the honeybees he had been using. The first year he used them Freese’s farm doubled its cherry production. He thinks this is because the new bees are more active during the extended winter times that Washington is experiencing.
Help For Honeybees
While bee specialists are working at identifying bee issues to fight the problems, there are other things that are being done in order to support the popular pollinators. For starters, public awareness of the issue is increasing and community members are being encouraged to use fewer pesticides and to plant pollinator-friendly plants and flowers. Residents are also being encouraged to respect the bees, the beekeepers’ craft.
In some cases, community members are even being encouraged to keep hives themselves. And they are rising to the challenge. In Palm Beach, Florida, an area with a bee-friendly climate throughout the year, the number of beekeepers grew from 500 to 5,000 in ten years. Another high-profile area for urban beekeepers is Paris, France. As of 2018, the city is estimated to have more than 1,000 hives including many in landmarks as famous as The Luxembourg Gardens, the roof at Notre Dame Cathedral (the beehives there miraculously survived the building’s fire), and the Opera Garnier. In whatever location they’re placed around the world, these hives remind humans of the value that honeybees bring to the planet.
There are reasons to hope that these kinds of efforts will bear fruit. Recently a new species of the largest bee in existence (as large as an adult thumb) was collected in Indonesia. Hopefully, this large of a bee find is a harbinger of an equally large resurgence of bees overall.