For many American crops, Honey Bees and other pollinating insects play a vital role in the production of fruits and seeds that make growth possible. Some of our favorite fruits (apples, blueberries, cherries, watermelon, and oranges) and nuts (almonds and cashews) directly depend on Honey Bees and other pollinators to grow. Without these pollinators, these plants will not produce fruit. Similarly, pollinators are indirectly involved in the production of important vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli, carrots, and onions. By pollinating, they create the seeds that in turn are planted and become vegetables. Estimates for the total value of crops directly and indirectly dependent on pollinators top $29 billion. So what’s the problem? The most common pollinators, Honey Bees, have been experiencing increasing levels of colony losses. This has put pressure on both the farmers dependent on Honey Bees for their crops and the beekeepers that depend on the bees for their livelihood.
The leading USDA Survey of more than 20,000 U.S. beekeepers reported an 8 percent loss in colonies from 2015 to 2016. Beekeepers also reported a 44 percent loss in colony population over the same year, a 3.5 percent increase from the previous year. While population loss is expected from winter die off, the more concerning issue is that beekeepers were experiencing losses in the summer as well, when bees should be the healthiest.
The causes for these losses are well-known among beekeepers but the concern lies in the growing effects of these issues. The Varroa mite is a small parasitic insect that infests colonies and feeds on adult bees and their larvae. If left untreated, a colony infested with Varroa will experience huge losses and possibly collapse. Estimates of the colony losses attributed to Varroa mite infestation are around 70 percent of the total annual loss in bee colonies. The other 30 percent is attributed to a problem known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) a phenomenon where seemingly healthy adult bees simply abandon the queen and their hive without provocation. In 2016 beekeepers reported 23.5 percent more colony losses with symptoms of CCD than they did at the same time in 2015. CCD has no proven cause, but hypotheses from researchers in the field point the finger at climate change, increased pesticide use, habitat destruction, new diseases, and management practices. None of these alone lead to CCD explicitly, but it is believed that exposure to these stressors concurrently could lead to collapse.
A continued decline in bee colonies could have serious negative effects on the economy. Contrary to the decline in colonies, crops have experienced growth in cultivated area and revenues, but population growth outpaced that crop growth over the same period. Population outgrowing domestic crops could lead to a growing dependency on food imports if the decline in bee colonies continues. The current political climate in the White House and Congress worries me, as foreign goods look to be on the verge of a tax hike. Consumers could bear the bulk of a price increase in food as more food is imported. Adding to increased prices, as new threats are identified, more precautions and treatments are necessary to maintain a healthy colony. Colony maintenance costs have doubled since 2004 which in turn can lead to increased honey prices and increased produce prices as farmers have to rent bee colonies to pollinate their crops.
Amazingly this all comes back to Honey Bees and pollinators like them. Putting serious effort into protecting our population of wild and managed colonies is essentially the same as protecting a large part of our domestic food production. The USDA is leading the way in government action trying to protect Honey Bees but the issue hasn’t started to generate much buzz in the mainstream. If you want to do more in protecting Honey Bees and American food, here are some things to do:
- Grow plants and flowers on your land: Bees and pollinators love plants and flowers and any increase to the size of their habitat can be helpful in maintaining a healthy population. Better yet, build a small backyard beehive if you have the land. Backyard beekeepers make up a small but important portion of beekeepers in the U.S. and every effort counts
- Avoid using pesticides and fight against their irresponsible use by large scale operations: pesticides are believed to be a factor in CCD and are harmful to the environment in general. Kill two birds by helping Honey Bees and helping keep the environment clean
- Support your local beekeepers and farmers by buying local honey and produce
- Spread the Word! Most people don’t know or realize just how important to us Honey Bees are. The more people who know the issues and take action, the better chance there is to improve the situation.