SAVE THE BEES
From starting your morning with a crunchy bowl of cereal coated in honey and covered with almonds, topped off with fresh blueberries to unwinding after a long day with a gin and tonic with lime, these pleasures would not be possible without the help of what many consider merely a buzzing, stinging nuisance: honeybees. These insects are responsible for the pollination of billions of dollars worth of crops in the United States alone and are vital to not only the agricultural economy, but to the diversity of foods we put on our tables. However, of late bees have caught the attention of public officials, activist groups and the best masters degree programs as they seem to be in trouble.
Many plants, from fruits and vegetables to edible oil crops, are simply unable to reproduce without the assistance of bees. According to a report by the United Nations Environment Program, the relationship between these insects and the plants they pollinate is often so specialized and the species so dependent on the other’s survival, that if one disappears, it threatens the survival of its complimentary species. With the disappearance of bees, the world is facing a severe decline in biodiversity stemming from the symbiotic relationship of plants and bees and the pollination networks created by them.
For more than a decade, beekeepers and scientists have reported a decline in the number of pollinator species all over the world, but in 2006, it was reported that 31% of the domestic honeybee population had disappeared, according to a Congressional report. The number of empty hives has hovered between 26% and 40% since 2006 which, when compared to prior years of colony loss, is quite significant. In 2006, scientists named the phenomenon Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and have been studying and debating the causes ever since. In contrast to the other colony disappearances that have occurred in recent history, what makes this epidemic unique, aside from the high rate of disappearances, is that the hives are found with few or no dead worker bees. The brood remains intact, the queen is still alive, and other pests have not invaded the hive to steal food. The bees are simply disappearing.
Up to this point, studies have shown a lack in conclusive evidence towards exactly one culprit or another. However, as cited in a 2010 U.S. Department of Agriculture study, there has been data suggesting that common pesticides in combination with pathogens and parasites are the cause of the drop in colony health. Vampire mites, stress from the transportation of hives, and Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV) have all been blamed for the disappearances. In response to the identification of neonicotinoid pesticides as a possible reason for CCD, several European countries have suspended the use of these chemicals in the hope of saving their vital bee colonies.
At this stage, scientists are continuing work on identifying the exact cause of CCD and finding a cure, but in the meantime, they are working on new mitigation strategies to help slow the rate of new cases of CCD. These include educating beekeepers on diets that strengthen hives such as feeding protein supplements and avoiding high-fructose corn syrup, promoting the breeding of bees that have a higher resistance to pathogens and parasites, and working to ensure that the import and export of honeybees between Mexico, the US and Canada is not introducing new pathogens and parasites.
Universities are also joining the effort to help save the bees. The University of Georgia offers a Master Beekeeper Program that allows students to receive up to four different certifications. They place beekeeping “at center stage of public discourse and policy” and while not many others would make the same claim, it is true that without bees the world would be at a considerable disadvantage.
Guest blog post by Meika Jensen, a Masters student studying sustainability
The image above shows a Short-haired Bumblebee, a species which became extinct in Britain during the 20th century. Individuals had been introduced to New Zealand to pollinate introduced clover and there are plans to reintroduce it to Britain