As Go the Bees, so Goes the Planet

For anyone who enjoys fresh flowers and produce, bees are a vitally important part of the ecosystem. About seventy percent of the crops we consume (which provides 90% of the world’s nutrition) are pollinated by bees—particularly honeybees. These tiny, gentle workhorses are responsible for such a huge portion of the food that appears on our tables, which is why it’s terrifying that the world’s honeybee population is in massive decline.

So, what’s the problem? What can we do as humans—and what will the consequences be if we fail to protect the bees?

Our bees are in trouble…

Why are the bees dying off at record rates?  Studies suggest it’s due to “industrial agriculture, parasites/pathogens and climate change. The loss of biodiversity, destruction of habitat and lack of forage due to monocultures and bee-killing pesticides” are having deleterious effects on the honeybee population and pollinators in general, both on the individual and colony levels.

That is: humans are directly responsible for the decline in the honeybee population, due to habitat loss and pesticides. To put it into numbers, a honeybee population might lose 5-10% of its population over the winter, maybe 15-20% during a bad year—but in the United States, that number hovers closer to 30-50%, and sometimes even more. One beekeeper reported a 90% decline in 2006—the worst die-off in his 42 years as a beekeeper.

Pesticides and insecticides are likely the worst culprit, which interfere with the honeybees on a physiological level. Even when the insecticides are present in a sub-lethal dose, they can still interfere with development and formation as well as feeding patterns, olfactory capacity and even learning disabilities—they can affect the way that a bee recognizes flowers, nests and spatial orientation.

Habitat loss and climate change also have a huge impact on bees, their decline and their ability to reproduce. As developments pave over bees’ natural habitats, they lose their homes—and potentially years’ worth of hive-building work and habitat familiarity. With climate change an ever-present threat, raising temperatures and rendering ecosystems uninhabitable for many species, the only solution is to fight the problem on a global level.

Finally, there are mites called “varroa mites,” which are crab-like in appearance and feast on the bees’ blood. They are external parasites and will even feed on the drone brood, causing the drones to emerge malformed, occasionally missing wings or other body parts. The mites spread by drifting workers and drones, or occasionally honeybees will pick them up when they rob smaller colonies. The key to keeping an infestation at bay is to detect it early, but it’s harder to tell until the infestation has fully spread.

…and so is the planet!

If the bees go extinct, so do 70% of our major crops. That wouldn’t necessarily cause human extinction, but it would certainly cause a widespread famine as new food sources were located. Honey, some nuts and beans and many types of fruit would be affected, including blueberries, cherries and avocados. Meat supplies for beef (and any animal that eats primarily pollinated plants as a food source) would dwindle, and even medicines would be drastically affected.

That’s only an overview of the food-related issues. Allowing bees to go extinct could set off a catastrophic chain reaction that would affect many more species across the globe.

What can we do to save the bees?

Greenpeace and The Honey Bee Conservancy suggest three major courses of action:

  1. Ban the seven most dangerous pesticides. Ecological farming options will reduce the amount of pesticides that cause bee die-off, from the physiological to the neurological effects they have. Organic, ecological farming should stabilize our food sources as well as preserve wild habitats for the bees, allowing them to reproduce enough to keep up with the die-off rates—which will hopefully be far lower thanks to a reduction in dangerous pesticides.
  2. Protect pollinator health by preserving wild habitat. Bees can’t pollinate plants and make honey if they have nowhere to live. As the crops develop resistance to pests and the bee population grows, the pollination increases, and so do the crop yields.
  3. Restore ecological agriculture. Ecological architecture is the idea that you can create green spaces that “promote symbiosis between urban and natural environments,” whether that’s a single green wall or city-planned green spaces within the urban landscape.

As you can see, the decline of the honeybee population could have devastating effects on the planet as a whole—but by taking action and supporting these causes of action, you can help save the bees.

Abhishek Chauhan

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