By Rachel Roberts
Insects are responsible for pollinating about 90% of the world’s plant species, with a majority of that pollination performed by bees. Helping to maintain ecosystem diversity through the pollination of plants, bees are one of the most ecologically valuable pollinators worldwide. But they are more than just ecologically valuable; helping to pollinate about 75% of our agricultural crops, bees play a major role in our food system. One in three bites of food eaten worldwide are dependent of pollinators, and in particular bees. With agriculture holding such a heavy dependence on pollinators such as bees, it is a startling realization that this pollinator is currently experiencing significant population declines.
Since the late 1990s, many beekeepers have noticed a strange and sudden disappearance of bees, and unusually high rates of colony collapse disorder. Since 2006, commercial honeybee populations in the United States have declined by 40%. For the last 10 years, beekeepers in the United States and Europe have reported annual hive losses around 30%; significantly more than what is considered sustainable or normal. This past winter, U.S. beekeepers have experienced even more severe losses, losing 40 to 50% (or more) of their bees.
There are many possible reasons for this decline including, but not limited to, land use, the development of new pathogens, pesticide use, habitat loss and climate change. A number of beekeepers agree that the parasitic mite, Varroa destructor is a serious threat. Other parasites such as Nosema ceranae have been highly threatening to bee colonies in southern European countries, while new viruses and pathogens are expected to put even more of a strain on bee colonies.
Industrial agriculture has also had significant impacts on bees. Not only does industrial agriculture destroy natural habitat for bees, agricultural practices such as heavy pesticide use, and the fragmentation of natural habitats, are also contributing to declines. Agriculture systems that work with more diversity and rely less on chemicals can help benefit pollinator communities. For example, mixed cropping systems instead of mono- cropping could provide increased habitat for bees.
According to Greenpeace, although there are a growing number of scientific studies examining these declines, there is still not enough data that would allow scientists to reach firm conclusions about the causes of bee declines. Some regions in the world are experiencing growth, but there are also significant declines in regions with high agricultural productions such as the United States, United Kingdom, and other western European countries.
According to an expert in the field, “In the log run, if we don’t find some answers, we could lose a lot of bees.” This loss could have immense impacts on our current food production system. So the next time you see a bee, don’t bee afraid—bee thankful that this tiny creature helps to pollinate many of the fruits and vegetables in our supermarkets today. Long live the bee!
“Honey Bees and Colony Collapse Disorder.”United States Department of Agriculture: Agriculture Research Service. Web. 1 Dec. 2014. <http://www.ars.usda.gov/News/docs.htm?docid=15572>.
“The Role of the Bee: Situation.” The Bees in Decline. Greenpeace. Web. 1 Dec. 2014. <http://sos-bees.org/situation/>.
Grossman, Elizabeth. “Declining Bee Populations Pose A Threat to Global Agriculture.” Yale360, 30 Apr. 2013. Web. 1 Dec. 2014. <http://e360.yale.edu/feature/declining_bee_populations_pose_a_threat_to_global_agriculture/2645/>.