Plight of the bumble bee

Thoughts on Earth. Sarah Liebig.
Thoughts on Earth. Sarah Liebig.

What is your reaction when a bee comes a little too close for comfort? Do you run away? Perhaps you remember the pain of being stung or fear the possibility of the experience itself. Either way, you probably do not immediately think of humans’ dependency on bees. To be clear, I am not thinking of hairless yellow jackets or hornets, both of which are frequently confused with pollinating bees. Rather, I am thinking of honeybees (typically used for commercial pollination of crops), the much bigger bumblebees and the shrinking population of native bees, all of who possess varying amounts of “hair” on their bodies. Of all pollinators, honeybees are considered the most valuable to conventional farming. With over 20,000 species of bees in the world, few are as efficient as the honeybee. Thus, they are traded and purchased as commodities that make the ultimate commodity — edible food — possible.

Bees pollinate approximately 75 percent of the fruits, vegetables and nuts in the United States according to the USDA Forest Service. This is a lot of food to feed 300 million people in the United States alone. When we add 7 billion more people into the equation and look at the global importance of bees and how they ultimately affect crop yields, the decline in bee population is concerning, to say the least. If humans cannot protect the habitats of pollinating bees and other pollinators, how are they going to ensure sufficient crop yields to feed not only themselves but also the animals they eat?

There have been numerous speculations of the causal factors to the declining bee population. Some theorize that with the continual decimation of natural landscapes, it is increasingly difficult for bees to find places to live and find sufficient food. Others look to conventional farming practices, where honeybees are used to pollinate one type of crop. All bees — not only honeybees — require various sources of nutrition. That is, bees must draw pollen from various plant species to extend their lives and work more efficiently, much like humans must eat a balanced diet to properly function. When exposed to only one type of plant, an entire colony’s health is compromised and the negative effects are passed on to future generations of bees. This is bad news because it means that future bees will not work as efficiently or live as long as they might have, had there not been a nutritional deficiency in the previous generation.

Finally, the use of the insecticide neonicotinoid, a derivative of nicotine that paralyzes a bee’s nervous system, has faced harsh criticism in recent years. Neonicotinoid is primarily used in conventional farming, where the use of insecticides and pesticides is common. Bees exposed to large amounts of neonicotinoid over their lives tended to collect less pollen due to disorientation and tended to die earlier than bees that were not exposed to the chemical. Bees in these studies tended to get a “buzz” from the neonicotinoid that was so strong it either attracted or detracted the bees from that crop. The attraction or lack thereof varied according to the colony.

In conventional farming, bees are transported from one location to the next because the demand for bees is so high. Transportation of bees is enough to cause colonies to collapse or die unexpectedly. Pests and diseases, such as mites and certain types of fungus, are often contracted when hives are in transit, which is far more often than not given the demand for pollinators.

With these concerns growing on the horizon, the health of the bee population is one of many arguments that could be made for the benefits of local farming, where the crops are fewer and there is far more variety. Despite the possible initial economic drawback, humans will have to foster a greater variety of crops in smaller amounts for both the bees’ and eventually their own well-being.

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