Around the globe, honeybees have been disappearing. Beekeepers will open a hive and find the 30,000 or so bees the average hive normally teems with missing. There will be no dead bees lying around, either. The honeybees will simply be gone. Beekeepers have, in some instances, lost 90-95% of their hives this way.
Colony Collapse Disorder Hurts Ecosystem Biodiversity
This phenomenon, dubbed "Colony Collapse Disorder," (CCD) threatens ecosystems and food security. Michael Schacker, author of the book A Spring Without Bees, writes,"Today there are 250,000 species of flowering plants and trees, providing most of the crops and ornamentals we depend on. Of those plants, 130,000 rely on insects, mostly 20,000 species of bees, to ensure reproduction. Bees are thus essential to biodiversity, a main indicator of health of an ecosystem."
Some fear CCD is a canary in the coal mine, pointing to agricultural practices that are turning the environment increasingly toxic with pesticides. That said, researchers haven't been able to find any one reason why honeybees are dying. Rather, CCD seems to be caused by a collection of problems that include mites, viruses, parasites, and genetics that make certain species of honeybees more susceptible to pathogens.
Pollinators and Pesticides Don't Mix
However, evidence increasingly points to pesticides playing a strong role in CCD, particularly one called imidacloprid (IMD), which is an insect neurotoxin. IMD is sometimes sprayed on plants, other times put into the soil where it can remain for more than a year.
French researchers have found IMD affects bees' memories and sense of smell, both of which honeybees rely heavily on to collect pollen and nectar, and to convey to other bees where flowers are located. It's believed bees, when exposed to levels of IMD between 100-500 parts per billion, become disoriented and can't find their way back to the hive.
Since these findings, the European Union has recommended a ban on the use of neonicontinoid pesticides (IMD being one of them) to begin later in 2013.
Wild Pollinators are also Crucial, and also Threatened
While CCD has garnered enormous attention (and rightly so), wild pollinators, also crucial to ecosystems and plant pollination, should not be forgotten. They are also under threat. This recent article on cornucopia.org states that a global study finds loss of wild pollinators, "...may be an even more alarming threat to crop yields than the loss of honeybees." Wild pollinators are more efficient than honeybees in pollinating plants, visited more plants, and were better cross-pollinators.
But wild pollinators are also declining due to habitat destruction. The article states, "The new research shows for the first time the huge contribution of wild insects and shows honeybees cannot replace the wild insects lost as their habitat is destroyed."
Some Facts to Underscore the Importance of Pollinators
- Besides benefiting humans with their honey and beeswax, in North America, honeybees pollinate around 100 different kinds of crops, some of which are 100% reliant on honeybee pollination.
- Most pollination services in the US are provided by commercial migratory beekeepers.
- 1/3 of the food we eat is the direct result of bee pollination…every 3rd bite you put in your mouth!
- Globally, 3/4 of food crops require pollination.
- Honeybees are not naturally aggressive. They only sting when they feel their hive is threatened.
- Honeybees live in highly organized societies, with specific roles such as “nurses, guards, grocers, housekeepers, construction workers, royal attendants, undertakers, foragers,” etc.
- Honeybees can live as long as 5 years.
- Honeybees have existed on the planet for 25 millions years.
- The value of global crop production reliant on pollination = 153 billion Euros (1 Euro = around US $1.30)
What You Can do to Help Honeybees & Wild Pollinators:
- Keep beekeeping in your area viable by buying local honey.
- Grow a variety of flowering plants in your garden and avoid using pesticides. If feel you must spray, do so at dusk, when bees aren’t out and about.
- If you see a large mass of bees in a tree (called a “swarm”), don’t harm it, and don’t panic. Swarms are not dangerous. Call a professional beekeeper to come and carefully collect it.
- Write your senators and representatives, asking them to support funding for honeybee research, and bee-friendly legislation.
- Learn the difference between honeybees and other flying insects such as wasps/yellow jackets: many people mistake honeybees for the latter and inflict deadly sprays, thinking they are “pests.
- Consider becoming a backyard beekeeper!
- Live in a city? Some urban areas allow beekeeping! Read 10 Urban Beekeeping Tips from grit.com.
- Grow native plants in your yard.
- Check out this list of plants for year-round bee foraging (bees need to collect pollen and nectar from spring to fall)
- Support natural habitat conservation efforts!
- Spread the word about the importance of pollinators to others.