America Losing its Honey Bees – Science to the Rescue?

The White House has become so worried about the collapse in America’s honey bee population that it has established a team to get to grips with the decline. There seems to be a particular problem of too few bees making it through the winter months compared with the past.

Honey Bee
The Honey Bee

The population fall off last winter was an alarming 23% compared with a normal 10% or so. Some recent years have seen one-third of bees dying.

Foods that depend on the humble bee for pollination include honey (obviously), okra, onions, cashews, celery, brazil nuts, beets, canola oil, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, turnip, peppers, safflower, chestnuts, watermelons, tangerines, coconuts, coffee, cilantro, hazelnuts, cantaloupe melons, cucumber, pumpkins/zucchini/squashes, lemons, limes, carrots, buckwheat, sunflowers, flax, apples, avocados.

Bees pollinate crops each year worth $15 billion in America alone. Worldwide, the value is about $200 billion. Depending on your diet, somewhere around one in three or one in four of every bite of food you eat depends on the efforts of a worker bee. The NRDC says that California’s $2.5 billion almond industry needs half of America’s honey bees.

A variety of causes are blamed for the decline including: pesticides, diminishing genetic diversity, immuno-deficiencies, and parasitic mites.

Another concern is CCD – colony collapse disorder – where the worker bees in a hive suddenly disappear in large numbers. They don’t die, they just disappear. No dead bodies are found. The cause of CCD is unknown, but may be one of the causes mentioned above.

As we mentioned last week, the population of Monarch Butterflies and many other pollinators are also in severe decline in America.

Environmentalists are blaming a group of pesticide chemicals known as neonicotinoids for the bees’ plight. These chemicals have now been banned by the European Union. The American EPA believes, however, that the parasitic mite varroa is the most likely culprit.

Recent Research Suggests Pesticides and Fungicides are Weakening Bees’ Defenses Against Parasites

Jeffery Pettis and other researchers from the University of Maryland and the Department of Agriculture have identified a toxic combination of fungicides and pesticides which is poisoning the pollen bees eat.

To illustrate the effect, they took pollen from bee colonies on the east coast, which were gathering their pollen from crops treated with fungicides and pesticides. They fed the pollen to healthy bees and found these bees became much more vulnerable to parasitic attack. Each sample of pollen was found to be contaminated with an average of nine different agricultural chemicals.

The White House has now instructed the EPA to develop a strategy before the end of 2014 to combat the decline in pollinating insects.

$8 million of government funding will also go to farmers in northern states to establish new habitats for bees.

If the EPA confirms that pesticides and fungicides are to blame for the bee die-off, will any action be taken? Or will it simply be a matter of money. If it will cost more in pest damage to stop using certain chemicals, will the pollinating insects be sacrificed? Your guess is as good as mine.

Personal Action

If you’d like to take individual action to help honey bees, stopping pesticide and fungicide use looks like a good place to start. Then grow plants that provide bees with good sources of pollen and nectar, such as red clover, foxglove, dandelions, alfalfa, and bee balm.