What’s Killing Our Honey Bees – And What’s at Stake?

bees

Along with other pollinators (which include hoverflies, butterflies and moths), honey bees perform a crucial role in the production of one-third of all the food we eat. Honey bees alone pollinate roughly fourteen billion dollars’ worth of food crops annually. They comprise a necessary part of the living ecosystem, and we would be hard-pressed to supply our world’s food needs without them.

Beginning around 2007, those who worked closely with these bees (including beekeepers and agricultural experts) began noticing troubling signs of de-population. Within that year, beekeepers in more than twenty states across the U.S. lost tens of thousands of honey bee colonies. This comprised 30-35 percent of the nation’s pollinator stock. The reasons for this swift devastation were a complete mystery at first. It was also unclear whether such losses fell within the range of normal winter casualties or whether they constituted a cause for real alarm. The chief symptom was a low number of adult bees in the hive, and the cause seemed to be sudden early death.

As the massive die-off continued, agricultural experts began referring to the scary phenomenon as Colony Collapse Disorder. Such a quick decimation of the honey bee population had never occurred before. Possible causes were investigated. One culprit was thought to be the varroa mite, a parasite that sucks the blood of adult and larval bees. This weakens the hives and leaves them vulnerable to viral devastation. But the varroa mite, along with others pests, had been afflicting bee populations for a long time without wreaking such widespread destruction. Some new influence was causing the bees to be particularly weak and susceptible to parasites and viruses.

Scientists considered the effects of genetically modified crops on the overall ecosystem. Others focused on environmental contaminants – particularly, the introduction of new pesticides to agricultural land. One of the chemicals most frequently linked to bee decline is also the one most widely used throughout the world: Imidacloprod, a member of the neocontinoid family. Neocontinoid pesticides have come to be seen as the most significant threat to bee populations, wreaking more havoc than such factors as habitat loss and disease.

In mid January of this year (2013), scientists from the European Food Safety Authority, working with experts from across Europe, concluded that “only uses on crops not attractive to honey bees were considered acceptable” where imidacloprid was concerned. Bees are exposed to this pesticide through the nectar and pollen of plants that have been treated with it. The proven dangers of imidacloprid have cast doubt on the safety of the entire family of neocontinoids. France, Germany, Italy and Slovenia have already begun implementing bans on some uses of these chemicals. This initiative has not yet been taken up by the U.K. or the U.S.

To ensure not only the fragile balance of the worlds’ ecosystems but also the safety of our food supply, we need to take steps to halt the poisoning of our bees and practice more careful stewarding of their populations.

Image Credit: iStock Photo

Reference:

Ellis, J., Evans, J., & Pettis, J. (2010). Colony losses, managed colony population decline, and Colony Collapse Disorder in the United States Journal of Apicultural Research, 49 (1), 134-136 DOI: 10.3896/IBRA.1.49.1.30

Tokarz, R., Firth, C., Street, C., Cox-Foster, D., & Lipkin, W. (2011). Lack of Evidence for an Association between Iridovirus and Colony Collapse Disorder PLoS ONE, 6 (6) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0021844

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