The Impact of Pollinators: Collapsing Bee Habitats Affect All Populations

The decline of the honey bee population in the United States is not something new but has caught the attention of a lot of people in the past few years. Overall, the primary cause of the significant decrease in bees has remained as a sort of mystery. However, according to the data collected by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), it shows “a pattern of steady decline in the number of managed hives from a peak of nearly 6 million in the 1940’s to 2.3 million by 2008.” In 2004, beekeepers began reporting excessive losses of their bee colonies. Although losses of bee colonies during the winter are not uncommon, the sheer magnitude of losses reported during this time was relatively high.

This rapid decline in bee population became known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the main indication being the disappearance or death of worker bees in a colony when the queen is still present with plenty of resources to keep it going. While the direct cause of CCD is not yet clear, there may be many potential causes for this phenomenon. Scientists are classifying these causes into broad categories which include both environmental and management stressors, pathogens, and parasites.

Researchers have observed how parasites, like the Varroa mite, have previously killed whole bee colonies. It turns out that these mites carry a virus in them that is said to cause death to bees and some studies have shown that the mite attaches itself to bee larvae and literally feeds off of them while the bee is going through its stages of development. As far as environmental stressors go, climate change and pesticides claim this category, and may also contribute to CCD; pesticides used to keep bugs off of plants have been targeted as a major contributing factor. Neonicotinoids, even in low doses, have been known to cause honeybees to lose their sense of direction and make it difficult for them to return to their hive. While it’s likely that a combination of these issues is a contributing factor in CCD, the exact cause is hard to pinpoint. It becomes challenging to create an effective solution for the problem.

So how does CCD affect humans? Honeybees are valuable pollinators and without them, most fruits and vegetables would decrease greatly. While wild bees are also important pollinators, honeybees are considered gold and easier to manage for the pollination of multiple crops. According to the USDA, “an estimated $15 billion worth of crops is pollinated by honey bees, including more than 130 fruits and vegetables.” One example completely dependent on honeybees to pollinate are almonds. The USDA also states that “in California, the almond industry requires the use of 1.4 million colonies of honey bees, approximately 60 percent of all managed honey bee colonies in the United States.”

In June 2014, President Obama issued a memorandum establishing a Pollinator Health Task Force, co-chaired by USDA and EPA, to create a National Pollinator Health Strategy that promotes the health of honeybees and other pollinators. The strategy would involve commitments from federal agencies to promote pollinator health and attempt to replenish what has been lost, while also educating the public on things they can do to help increase the pollinator populations.

There are many things that can be done on the public level that can help improve or increase bee habitats. Please keep watching both social media outlets for our ISF Environment Division, as well as our ISF Creatures Division for more information as to how you can help pollinators in your area.

-Photo Credit: Gary Thompson 

-Written by: Jeshica P.