Save the Bees: The Importance of Protecting Our Pollinators
Bees have had their furry backs against the wall for well over a decade now. Since beekeepers first reported record declines in honey bee populations in 2006, bees have had to contend with pests, pesticides, herbicides, habitat loss, climate change and American foulbrood, an infectious disease known to destroy entire colonies. Since the universe seems to have it out for the honey bee, we thought we would check in on these tiny pollinators. Have honey bee populations rebounded or declined? What about the 4,000 other bee species in North America that contribute to pollination?
Why Are Honey Bees Important?
Honey bees are one of nature’s pollinators, helping the 250,000 species of flowering plants that depend on bees and other insects to spread pollen from one plant to another. In exchange for helping flowers propagate, honey bees gain access to their main source of carbohydrates: nectar. Pollen collected by honey bees also provides the proteins, vitamins and minerals essential for brood (young) development.
A honey bee can visit thousands of flowering plants in a single day. When you consider that bee colonies are made up of about 20,000 bees—the majority of which collect pollen—you begin to understand why these insects play such a vital role in agriculture. How much value do bees add to the U.S. crop value through pollination alone? Over $15 billion annually. That’s not even counting honey, beeswax, venom and other hive products. As much as $577 billion worth of annual global food production is held aloft on the beating wings of these tireless workers.
What Causes Honey Bee Losses?
Honey bee colony losses began receiving worldwide attention in 2006 when thousands of colonies in south Florida collapsed, having shown no symptoms consistent with any known causes of honey bee death. This seemingly inexplicable phenomenon, later named “colony collapse disorder,” technically occurs when a colony’s worker bee population disappears despite abundant honey and pollen reserves. As their name implies, worker bees perform the vast majority of tasks within a hive, including caring for the queen and her young. With the majority of a colony gone, the queen and brood are unable to care for themselves and the colony collapses.
Even though true instances of colony collapse disorder have not been reported since 2008, beekeepers consistently deal with high loss rates of their colonies. With high losses being so frequent, many beekeepers are looking to entomologists for answers.
So, what is causing these drastic honey bee colony losses? Unfortunately, colony losses are likely caused by a number of factors, including poor queen health, poor nutrition, the pathogen-spreading mite Varroa destructor, pesticides, and emerging diseases.
God Save the Queen Bee
How are honey bees faring with all these threats to their health? In the last decade, the number of honey bee colonies in the United States has held at roughly three million honey bee colonies each year. While this is a far cry from the 5.9 million honey bee colonies reported by the USDA in 1947, it shows that managed honey bees are in no danger of going extinct. However, the commercial beekeeping industry is in serious trouble, as the costs of responsible management and continual replacement of lost colonies has meant that it is difficult to make a profit. While honey bee colonies have some form of protection from caring beekeepers, the same can’t be said for native bees and other pollinators.
Bumble Bees and the Climate Crisis
According to the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), “native bees are estimated to pollinate 80 percent of flowering plants around the world.” In the U.S., the majority of these wild bees are solitary, living out their lives in burrowed nests. The bumble bee is one exception. Like domesticated honey bees, bumble bees form colonies and are one of nature’s most important pollinators. Bumble bees are critical to the pollination of wild plants and agricultural crops, including tomatoes, blueberries and squash. Despite their agricultural and environmental importance, the vital role bumble bees play has been at least partially overshadowed by honey bees. Some researchers have observed bumble bee populations that have declined steeply, and several bumble bee species have disappeared from certain areas, believed to be locally extinct.
Why the sudden drop in bumble bees? According to National Geographic, new research points to climate change as the culprit behind native bees like the rusty patched bumble bee becoming locally extinct in areas of North America. In addition to climate change, bumble bees must contend with pesticides, habitat loss and non-native competitors. Insect conservation is critical, but it’s important to remember that all bees, not just honey bees, are responsible for the majority of produce grown in the U.S.
Worst Case Scenario
If native bee populations were to drastically decline, it could create a ripple effect. Flowering plants that rely mainly on bees for pollination would fail to reproduce. Other plants that rely on multiple pollinating insects would be unable to reproduce as rapidly. Entire ecosystems would be altered, as animals that rely on plants and bees for their food source would begin to die, which would only trigger additional deaths. Although humanity wouldn’t go extinct, as many eye-catching headlines would suggest (most of our food sources are wind-pollinated), fruits, vegetables and nuts would become rare commodities.
What Can Be Done?
Climate change may be beyond our control, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do your part to protect our precious bees. Because native bees evolved alongside native plants, having a variety of native wildflowers in your backyard garden will provide a source of pollen and nectar for visiting bees. Be sure to go easy on the pesticides and always follow label instructions. If you really want to make your garden appealing, you can offer a bee block or bee hotel where some species of solitary bees can rear their young.
Insects are some of the most abundant and diverse creatures on the planet, but they still need the help of well-trained professionals from time to time. The University of Florida offers online graduate programs in entomology and nematology with three specialization options designed to empower professionals with a foundational knowledge of entomology, insect classification and pest management. Our graduates can frequently be found out in the field, conducting research for the betterment of society. If a career as an ecologist, biologist or research scientist interests you, join the top-ranked entomology and nematology program in the world according to the Center for World University Rankings. The bees will thank you.