And what that would mean for society
Photo by Boris Smokrovic
Western pop culture has a longstanding hobby of portraying bees as evil little stinging pests. While this may hold some fundamental truth, bees are actually quite useful for society. In fact, calling them ?useful? is a huge understatement, as the activity of bees help substantially turn the wheels of international trade ? involving a number of industries from agriculture to fashion (yes, bees help make cotton). While there is some debate on the official numbers, experts reckon that bees contribute between 15?131 billion dollars a year to the United States economy.
Some sources suggest that bee products account for over 265 billion dollars in global agricultural revenue. Considering that pollinators ? that?s what bees are ? are responsible for 70% of the fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds we consume, the staggering numbers do make sense. And since nuts like almonds have hulls that are commonly used for cattle feed, the impact of bees extends to great lengths ? affecting entire food webs and supply chains.
And so beekeepers were left bewildered and frustrated when they learnt that during the winter of 2006?2007, hive losses reached record high numbers. As many as 30?90 percent of colonies were lost in the winter, and up to 50 percent of all affected colonies demonstrated unusual symptoms, inconsistent with the typical causes of honey bee death.
This phenomenon would later be named the Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The reason it was called ?Colony Collapse? instead of ?Colony Death? was because beekeepers observed large colonies ? each comprising up to 80,000 bees ? literally disappear, with very few dead bees found near the colony. These people observed that the queen and brood (immature bees) remained, but the worker bees ? those responsible for pollinating ? simply vanished from existence.
Immediately after a colony collapses, the hives would have preserved a sizeable sum of honey and pollen reserves, but their stores would not last long. Hives without presence of worker bees cannot sustain themselves, eventually dying off. The combination of such events, resulting in the loss of a bee colony is the basis of this quirky nomenclature.
And it?s not like CCD is a one-time thing, it would repeat itself multiple times over the coming years. Winter losses of hives ? an indicator for overall bee health ? has ?maintained? an average of around 28.7 percent since 2006?2007. That number by no means satisfactory for ?maintenance?, considering it does not take summer losses into account. In 2015, the USDA reported colony losses of 42 percent, a 7.9 percent increase from annual losses the year before.
At the end of World War II, the USDA reported 4.5 million honey colonies throughout the United States. In 2019, this number had significantly dropped to 2.8 million. Mind you, the world population has nearly tripled over the course of that period. Demand continues to rise, while supplies dwindle. And we all know too well the implications of imbalanced supply-demand curves, especially when it concerns basic human needs.
There are a number of suspected causes for this, most of which are still being studied, but theories range from invasion of varroa mites, a natural parasite affecting honey bees, often bringing a slew of viruses with them, such as the Israeli Acute Paralysis virus.
Pesticides such as neonicotinoids ? which are derivates of nicotine ? are also thought to play a role in CCD. They have been in use since the 1990s as replacements for the infamously devastating DDT, and are known to damage the central nervous system of bees. They impair the bee?s internal sat-nav, and that often leads to worker bees unable to re-route back to their hives, dying in the journey. Their demise often comes far from their hives, which explains why beekeepers have been unsuccessful in finding dead bee remnants.
Other less talked about reasons include bee stress during management practices such as transport for providing pollination services, inadequate forage due to habitat changes, and natural population decline during the colder winter months.
The implications are massive. Since bees are major contributors to the agricultural and fashion industry, a mass decline in bee population would certainly take a huge global toll. Sure, crops that are not pollinated by insects, such as rice, corn, and grain would be safe from potential global supply collapse, but would you want to live in a world where people have to fight and pay exorbitant amounts for fruits and vegetables? I?d sure hate that.
There?s also the argument that honey bees aren?t the only pollinators in the world. Other bee species (there are over 20,000 of them), butterflies, wasps, ants, and flies (yes, flies) are known to contribute to the dutiful work of pollinating. These animals are often wild and therefore un-farmed, unlike honey bees, which makes collecting data and studying their behaviours quite difficult things to do. Being left in the wild also means they operate under a different set of risks, and one major threat involves habitat loss due to massive deforestations for modernisation of communities.
These are harrowing facts. We may not be able to fully grasp the gravity of this situation, but life at the other end will be onerous, and potentially calamitous. We?re lucky to have pulled the right strings so far. But just like the COVID-19 pandemic swept us off our feet in 2020, the eventual extinction of bees will leave us struggling to make ends meet, given we?re not ready with an answer back at them.
On the bright side, things are being done. There are a number of associations and institutes devoting long hours to bee research, organising local programs, running creative campaigns, and setting up sustainable bee sanctuaries to help fight this global problem. Some countries have already began to take pollination matters literally into their own hands, employing people to manually pollinate plants by hand. It?s a hopeful start, but success requires joint effort. Humanity needs to work hand-in-hand and take responsibility to address this shared problem.
There are also things you can do on the individual level. Peter Soroye, a bee researcher from the University of Ottawa, gives us some advice. As quoted from National Geographic?s piece on bumblebee extinction, Soroye suggests bee-friendly yard practices like planting native flowers that bumblebees can feed on, and avoiding the use of pesticides like neonicotinoids.
?Creating flower beds that are continuously in bloom can also help?, says another field leader, ?as well as waiting until spring to remove leaf litter, a prime denning spot for the insects.? When it comes to bees, a little really does go a long way.