The Sting of Bee Extinction
Story and photos
by Dustin Strong
We are all going to die. And sooner than you might think. It's true and I'm not saying it in the sense that you’re born, grow old and die. I'm saying the entire human race gone because we are threatening to kill off one of the creatures most vitally important to life on earth, the bee.
Maurice Maeterlinck, author of the book “The Life of the Bee,” famously said, “If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.”
In an expansive review done by the Center for Biological Diversity earlier this year, more than half of the 4,000 native bee species in North America were found to have declining populations and more than 700 species are in trouble from a variety of serious threats. For several years beekeepers primarily in the United States and Europe have reported annual hive losses of 30 percent or more. More recently those numbers have risen to 50 percent or more.
Just last year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added several species of bees to the endangered list including the first bumblebee, the rusty patched bumblebee. Other countries soon followed, Brazil, China and countries in Europe are all having bee troubles of their own.
What does this mean though? We're the smartest mammals on the planet, can't we prevent this? The dangers that coincide with the extinction of bees shows the dependence humans have on nature to survive. By now you might be asking why bees are so important.
“In urban and agricultural settings they are very important. Agricultural systems could not function without insect pollinators,” shares Dessie Underwood, Ph. D., she is Cal State Long Beach’s only resident entomologist. She currently serves as a Professor of Biological Sciences where she runs an ecological entomology research lab with research into both terrestrial and freshwater systems.
Bees are the primary pollinators and initiators of plant reproduction. When a bee collects pollen from a male plant some of that pollen sticks to their hairs. When the bee visits the next flower, the pollen is then rubbed off onto the stigma of a male plant - or the tip of a female reproductive organ plant, called a pistil. When the pistil obtains pollen from a male plant the possibility of fertilization is high, and a fruit which carries seeds can develop.
A report done by The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reveals that 71 out of about 100 crop species, which provide 90% of the food worldwide, are pollinated by bees. One of every three bites of food eaten worldwide depend on bees and other pollinators. In the United States, popular fruits and vegetables of all kinds are available to us because of the work of bees.
Why are bee populations declining so rapidly? Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), pests like the varroa mite, lack of wildflowers, pathogens and viruses, poor nutrition, pesticide exposure, lack of genetic diversity and bee management practices all contribute to population decline.
CCD occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave the queen behind. The reasons for CCD range from varroa mite damage to stress due to management practices or exposure to pesticides, but studies show this disorder only accounts for a small percentage of the population decline.
The most commonly agreed upon threat to bee populations is the use of pesticides. “There are a number of pesticides that have been very troubling and of course when a bee visits a flower, it’s concentrated,” Dr. Underwood says. “Pollen can be very lipid-rich so it can attract even more of those harmful chemicals.”
In 2013, the European Commission (EC) temporarily banned three neonicotinoids because of concerns about their high threat to bees. Neonicotinoids are a class of most commonly used pesticide. They are extremely toxic to bees and a growing number of studies link these pesticides to pollinator decline. Neonicotinoids are associated with decreased foraging, increased vulnerability to pathogens and lower navigational abilities in bees and other pollinators such as butterflies and beetles.
We asked local beekeeper and owner of rescue organization Backyard Bees, Janet Andrews, what she thinks the root cause of population decline is. “Pesticides. It’s unfortunate but if you follow the money, the companies who make the pesticides conduct the testing and I don’t think it’s honest.”
Beekeeping started as just a hobby for Andrews and some friends over a decade ago, but soon after discovered the threat of bees dying off and began rescuing hives and relocating them into local resident’s backyards. “I think we’re doing a good deed saving these bees and not having them exterminated,” Andrews says.
Another issue Andrews says that directly affects bee populations are practices used by commercial beekeepers. “Commercial beekeepers use poor transportation practices and that's why they’re having so much trouble,” Andrews says. “They spray the crops before releasing the bees. There aren’t enough wildflowers to eat so they are fed high fructose corn syrup, so the bees aren’t eating their own food and there isn’t enough forage for them. Versus my bees who are in somebody’s backyard and they can fly three miles and find food. I call them treatment-free bees.”
As far as things you and I could do about helping the bee population individually for both honeybees and wild bees there is buying organic, supporting local beekeepers and their products and planting a bee-friendly garden.
Dr. Underwood stresses, “If you want to do something to help bees, buy organic. Don't support those big chemical companies. The thing about it is that the chemicals we use, we don't know exactly how bad they really are.” Anything from food to hygiene products can be organic and by purchasing these things you can help bee populations.
Supporting and buying local bee products is another way to support the bee populations. “What I do is sustainable, they’re pollinating and feeding themselves and the only honey we take is excess. Bees naturally want to store extra honey for wintertime but here in Southern California it doesn’t get too cold so they tend to have a lot of excess honey,” says Andrews.
Lastly, you as an individual can help by planting and keeping an organic bee-friendly garden. Native flowers, single-flower tops such as daisies or marigolds as well as plants that bloom season-round can be extremely beneficial. Even something as simple as creating a small “bee bath”, or a place for bees and other pollinators to land on to drink from while they’re working can be helpful.
With all the other fucked up things going on in the world, take a few hours, plant a garden or just a couple flowers and support an integral part of the human life by helping to save the bees.
Ways You Can Help Bees
Native Plants are Key
Planting a variety of different native species of plants from the area can create diversity and give a place for all sized bees to collect pollen and nectar from. Of the 4,000 bee species in North America, sizes range from 2 millimeters to an inch long.
Try to keep plants blooming throughout all seasons, different species of bees are active in different times of the year. Some are active all year while others only forage for two months at a time.
A “bee bath” is a small container, usually filled with marbles or small rocks and filled up enough for bees to land on the bath without getting wet while still being able to drink the water. These baths can hydrate bees and other pollinators throughout the day.
Save the Queen
Plant spring-blooming trees, shrubs and flowers. Queens are born in the fall and shortly after breeding begin to hibernate in the winter. When they emerge in spring, blooming plants are a queen’s best friend so she can find nectar and pollen sources easily.
By buying organic you are directly supporting businesses who choose not to use pesticides, which are the greatest threat to bee populations worldwide. Look for non-GMO and Certified Organic labels!
Donate, volunteer or just visit and learn from some of the countless number of websites and organizations that support bee populations and fight to help the pollinators of the world. The Pollinator Partnership, a leading organization in the march against pollinator endangerment, is on a mission to promote the health of pollinators through conservation, education and research. Visit them at pollinator.org.