If you had a bite to eat today, chances are, you can thank a bee.
Thanks to their work as pollinators, bees are a vital piece of the world’s agricultural puzzle. From the local orchard to the Midwestern factory farm, bees are an absolute necessity for survival. Without their help, food supplies would be devastated, resulting in nothing short of worldwide starvation.
“Honey bees, wild bees, and other pollinators – the second most important type of pollinator are flies! – contribute to the pollination of three quarters of our major global agricultural crops, including the fruits, vegetables, and nuts that provide most of our vitamins and minerals,” Christina M. Grozinger, Ph.D. and director of Penn State University’s Center for Pollinator Research, said.
Pennsylvania has one of the most pollinator-dependent agricultural systems in the country, Grozinger said. Take a look at local farms, and you can easily see that the agricultural economy is dependent upon the services of pollinators.
The funny thing is, the crucial contributions of pollinators like bees are simply the byproduct of their own little agendas.
“Pollinators – including honey bees – visit flowers to collect nectar, which is their source of carbohydrates, and pollen, which is their source of protein and fat,” Grozinger said. “As they move between flowers, they will transfer pollen. This allows the plants to set seed and produce fruit.”
Almonds, cauliflower, eggplant, grapes, onions, pumpkins and strawberries are just a few crops that benefit from bee pollination, contributing an estimated $20 billion to agricultural economics in the United States.
The apples you picked up at Heckman Orchards? They were pollinated by bees.
“Bees are very important for our apple crops and different vine crops,” Mark Heckman, co-owner of the orchard, said. “They need pollinators, or we definitely would not have as good a crop.”
In fact, the Heckmans work with two providers to maintain a healthy and productive bee population for the farm. Heckman said that there are usually between eight to ten permanent hives on the premises, and during the apple bloom, up to 20 additional hives are brought in.
It’s easy to see how incredibly necessary these little guys and gals are for food production, but thanks to a bevy of complications, bee populations around the world have been thrown into chaos.
In 2006, Colony Collapse Disorder – the simultaneous disappearance of adult honeybees from hives – began to wreak havoc on hives, with no clear explanation as to what was causing the problem.
“Nobody had any clue what it was,” Erik Diemer, a local beekeeper and member of the Monroe County Beekeepers Association, said. “They thought it was cell phones, they thought it was hairspray; they thought it was any number of crazy things.”
What’s the buzz?
Research and analysis led to the theory that dwindling populations were likely due to a combination of issues, including insecticide use, habitat loss, pests and modern agricultural practices.
Grozinger said that the use of insecticides is a very important part of pest management in agricultural systems and urban areas, as they help to manage insects that transmit disease. However, those insecticides are broadly toxic, and can cause damage to bees.
“If the bee receives a high dose of the insecticide, they will immediately die,” Grozinger said. “If they receive a low dose, they can survive but have various health problems, such as not being able to forage, not being able to fight off diseases, not being able to lay as many eggs, or not living as long. Over the long term, this will cause a honey bee colony to dwindle, or will cause a population of wild bees to decline.”
One type of insecticide, neonicotinoids, can be particularly problematic for bees. Neonicotinoids are taken up by a plant’s tissue, and they can last in the plant for a significant amount of time.
“The biggest issue with neonicotinoids is that they are used as seed treatments in many crops that are planted over large areas, [such as] corn [and] soy,” Grozinger said. “The insecticide contaminates the soil, and flowering weeds - that the bees are often depending on for food in these cropping systems - take up the insecticide, and the insecticide goes into their pollen and nectar.”
Diemer mentioned that under the administration of President Barack Obama, research into the effects of pesticides led to heavy restrictions on their use.
“The Trump administration backed out of a lot of those things,” Diemer said. “He actually just recently approved using sulfoxaflor, which is a bee-killing pesticide, for 16 million acres somewhere in the middle of the country. It’s a known bee-killing pesticide.”
President Donald Trump’s administration has approved “emergency” approvals for sulfoxaflor for use in 18 states. Some groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity, have accused the Environmental Protection Agency of misusing the “emergency” process in this case, claiming that the insecticide is too toxic to pass standard reviews.
The effects of sulfoxaflor on threatened pollinator populations remain to be seen, though many scientists and members of the beekeeping community are concerned that it could deal a further blow to the bees.
In addition to insecticides, Diemer pointed out that the departure from old-school farming techniques has led to less diverse food sources for bees, and fewer options throughout the year. “Monocropping” is an agricultural practice where a farm consistently grows a single crop, year after year, on the same land.
“What farmers used to do is grow a crop, and then grow alfalfa to produce hay to feed their cattle,” Diemer said. “Now, they don’t need to do that. There’s another blow to honey bees right there, because alfalfa is a fantastic food source for them. It offers a lot of pollen and a lot of nectar. It’s one of those crops that can be grown throughout the year, and there’s no specific nectar flow for alfalfa. It’s one of those things that can really give a boost to managed beehives.”
Flight of the honey bee
According to Grozinger, while USDA tracking efforts have reported that the number of colonies in the United States has remained fairly consistent over the past few years. Upon closer inspection, though, loss rates were far more considerable than expected.
“However, more detailed tracking efforts from the Bee Informed Partnership, and most recently by the USDA, which has now been cancelled, have examined the total numbers of colonies at different points in the year, and found that, on average, 30-40% of the colonies die every winter,” Grozinger said.
Tracking data is an important part of the fight to save bees, Grozinger and Diemer said. While localized efforts can help paint a picture of colony health, a broad-based approach is a necessity in an economy where bees are trucked across the country for pollination seasons.
This is especially apparent in the case of California’s almond crop, which depends upon mobile pollination services at a specific point in the season. If those bees are exposed to parasites like varroa mites, disease can spread when they are trucked to other states.
“California is a coast, so there are ports and all kinds of pests coming in, and then they are distributed all throughout the country,” Diemer said. “Without national surveys and national reports, it’s hard to have a firm grip on what’s going on.”
In July, the US Department of Agriculture suspended data collection for its Honey Bee Colonies report, citing excessive costs.
“The Honey Bee Colonies report started in 2014, and then it stopped this year,” Diemer said. “What’s five years of data if you’re trying to collect good, rich data to be used in agriculture and statistics? It’s hard to do anything with just five years of data. It needs to be continually collected.”
What can be done?
While the threat to bees can seem imposing and impossible to address, there are plenty of steps that can be taken to ensure a safe future for our pollinators.
Grozinger recommends that those who are interested in helping out the bees can start by reviewing the Pennsylvania Pollinator Protection Plan, which can be found on the Center for Pollinator Research website.
Diemer recommends engaging with members of your local government and asking them to help support the bees. Raising awareness to those who are uniformed helps as well.
“You can always write your representatives,” Diemer said. “A few weeks ago was Pollinator Week, and I had Representative Maureen Madden come to my apiary to see the hives. She asked me a lot of good questions about different legislative things that are going on.”
Farmers can make informed decisions that protect and benefit the bees, including partnering with local beekeepers, varying their crops and carefully evaluating insecticide use.
“As far as the pesticides, we’re as sensitive as we can be to it,” Heckman said. “We only use pesticides that are considered bee-friendly, we don’t spray during the hot part of the day when the bees are active. We’re trying to do our part the best we can to keep the hives and the population healthy.”
Beekeepers can help the preservation effort by splitting their colonies to make up for losses, or by purchasing new new colonies from commercial producers, Grozinger said.
Just about anyone can pitch in to preserve and support bee populations, and based on the bounty that those pollinators provide, it is the very least we can do to help out an indispensible part of our world.
“There are many things that individuals can do, from planting pollinator gardens to reducing pesticide use, to supporting changes in municipal ordinances to encourage more pollinator habitats,” Grozinger said. “We also have a new online tool, beescape.org, where people can learn about the quality of their landscape for supporting pollinators and contribute to our citizen science efforts.”