A report has just been released regarding the state of bee populations in the world. There is grave concern as populations are plummeting rapidly. Naturally, many would consider this a bad thing but they may also ask that bedsides honey what’s the big deal? Believe it or not, it’s a huge deal for world food supplies. As one report stated: “one out of every three bites of eaten worldwide depends on pollinators, especially bees, for a successful harvest.” It has been common over the last decade for beekeepers in Europe to lose 30% of their hives per year while in the U.S. the rate is between 40% and 50%. First, what’s the big deal and second what may be causing it.
Grass crops such as wheat, corn, grain sorghum, and rice do not rely on insect pollination but are pollinated by the wind or self-pollinated. Pollination by fauna, from bats and wasps to butterflies and bees, is confined to broadleaf plants. The primary bees we think of are actually from Europe and not native to North America and were brought over by some of the first colonists. And while you may be familiar with honeybees and bumblebees, there are approximately 4,000 species of bees in North America. The value of what bees pollinate annually in the U.S. is around $15 billion per year. So what do bees pollinate for us? In the U.S. almonds, apple; blackberry; blueberry; cantaloupe; cherry; clover; cucumber; fruit trees; peach; pear; persimmon; plum; pumpkin; raspberry; squash; potato; onion; mustard species including canola; peppers; sesame; clovers; tomatoes; grapes and watermelon must be pollinated by bees to produce food yields. That is just a partial list. Soybeans, alfalfa, sunflower, and other crops also benefit from bee pollination. Could we feed the world without insect pollinators, specifically bees? Something could probably be worked out but it would be expensive, food production would suffer.
There are many theories and ideas as to the sharp decline in bee populations so briefly. There is a general term, colony collapse disorder that appears to be the result of several factors.
• Climate change which has caused an increase in threats to bees including mites, viral pathogens, and a combination of the two.
• Fungicides – most pollen collected by bees in several studies contained up to none different pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, and fungicides. Bees collecting pollen with fungicide on it were more susceptible to parasite infection. The relationship is unclear.
• Insecticides – The class of insecticides that appears to be the culprit are the neonicotinoids family, which are analogs of naturally occuring compounds. The E.U. is now considering a permanent ban on this class of insecticides but the data still isn’t clear. For example, in Australia bee populations are much healthier even with the use of these insecticides.
• The key is finding out how all these factors are combining and being influenced by climate change and harming bee populations. And there will not likely be an easy fix but a combination of practices evolving as our understanding grows. It is imperative though for the good of the food supply and the whole ecosystem that this problem be solved.