The Plight of the Honeybee
If bees continue to die at the current rate, about one in three bites of food you take could be affected.
The risks go far beyond honey and fruit supply, and several groups are taking action—but research is still lacking in answers. Learn the latest thinking on the causes, the first steps toward solutions, and why even the president has taken a stand.
Last year 50,000 dead bumblebees greeted customers in a Target parking lot in Wilsonville, Ore. Shortly after that, an Ontario beekeeper reported the sudden death of 37 million of his honeybees. In Southwest China, where wild bees have been decimated, farmers hand-pollinate apple and pear orchards with paint brushes; children are employed to climb trees to reach the highest blossoms. The financial risk is clear: insect-pollinated crops in the U.S. are worth $18 billion to $27 billion annually. Worldwide, that number is $217 billion, according to Sarina Jepsen, the Endangered Species program director at The Xerces Society, a nonprofit organization that protects invertebrate wildlife.
The bee crisis has gained attention in recent years, but these and similar stories around the world illustrate just how serious the problem has become. Amid the research and speculation, the question remains: what is killing the bees, and what does it mean for the rest of us?
Public awareness of the crisis and a thriving urban beekeeping movement are steps in the right direction, but they fall short of reversing the looming agricultural catastrophe. Honeybees are essentially canaries in a coal mine, the first warning sign of a much larger global problem.
Early Warning Signs
In 2006, a phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder began making headlines with beekeepers reporting 30 to 90 percent losses in their hives. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Research Service defines CCD as a phenomenon in which few (or no) adult honeybees are present but there are no dead bodies either. The bees just disappear. But identifying the symptoms does not explain the cause or provide a solution.
This much is known: In 1947 there were 6 million managed honeybee colonies in the U.S. Today, that number has dropped to 2.5 million. Historically, commercial beekeepers reported annual losses of 10 to 15 percent of their hives over the winter. Since 2006 the mortality rate has averaged 30 percent. This year was better nationwide—a 23 percent mortality rate, according to the Bee Informed Partnership, though the number differs state by state.
Indiana has lost more than 65 percent of its bees in 2014. Other states, including Iowa, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, Wyoming, West Virginia, New Hampshire, and New York had die-offs of more than 50 percent. Idaho and Hawaii, at 12 to 13 percent, had the best bee survival rates.
California, the nation’s bread basket and typically the top honey-producing state, had an overwinter die-off rate of just below 20 percent. The summer drought, however, has been devastating for bees, due to bone-dry land devoid of wildflower nectar. Predictions for honey production this year are less than half the normal level.
Looking on a consumer economic level, the cost of honey has nearly doubled in the U.S. since 2006, from a retail price of $3.82 per pound to $6.40 in 2014, according to Bee Culture magazine. But honey is only one segment of the food industry being impacted. The situation is so serious that President Barack Obama established a federal strategy to promote the health of bees and other pollinators, including birds, bats, and endangered Monarch butterflies.
The Food Supply Ripple Effect
“You can thank a pollinator for one out of every three bites you eat,” says Jepsen. “A lot of our high-value and really delicious crops—berries, tomatoes, apples, almonds—rely on insect pollination.”
Bees are the best of that group, which includes bats, butterflies, beetles, moths, flies, and wasps. They perform a critical function, actively collecting pollen from plants for their young to eat and moving pollen from one plant to another.
If a farmer lacks pollinators for his strawberry fields, for instance, his entire harvest fails. To avoid that fate, farmers across the country truck in millions of migrant, commercial honeybees for a few days’ work at sometimes triple the cost it used to be. As a result—although also due to fuel hikes—California almond prices have been rising. Greenhouse produce, including tomatoes and peppers, also suffers, since it’s commonly pollinated by mail-order bumblebees bought by the box. Those bees, too, are showing poor survival rates; one theory is that unregulated interstate movement of bumblebees has exposed them to the same pathogens and disease as commercial honeybees.
A growing body of research blames the routinely applied neonicotinoid class of pesticides (neonics, for short), manufactured by Bayer CropScience, Syngenta, and Dow AgroSciences. Additional culprits include fungicides, herbicides, the scourge of bloodsucking varroa mites, widespread habitat loss, climate change, and lack of a diverse diet for bees due to monoculture. Still other scientists have pointed an accusatory finger at cell phone towers for disrupting the navigation paths of honeybees.
Last year the European Union restricted the use of seed-coating neonics for a two-year trial. Studies had found the pesticide disorients worker bees’ brains—making them appear drunk—so they can’t forage for food or find their way back to their hives; it also weakens their immune system and makes them vulnerable to new diseases.
If neonics are indeed a cause for the decline, it’s unclear if giving bees a two-year breather from the toxin will make much difference. “How long neonics can stay in the environment is hard to know,” says Elaine Evans, who works at the University of Minnesota’s Bee Lab in the Department of Entomology. “If they’ve been continually added to crops they can build up over the years in the soil. Even if all pesticides were removed, there can still be a lack of flowers for bees to get to, and there are still going to be diseases and pests. Neonics are just one piece of the puzzle.”
“We have been affected by the problem of pesticides and herbicides,” affirms Kate Dowdle, public relations director for Savannah Bee Company, a specialty honey and beeswax enterprise based in Savannah, Ga. “The beekeeper we used for honeycombs had to sell off his hives because his bees were starving. His apiary was on the property of a company that harvested wood and they decided to kill off all the underbrush to help the wood grow and the bees had nothing to feed off after that.”
Dowdle adds that Savannah Bee has been able to continue to produce its food and beauty products thanks to a network of beekeepers. “But the honey has become more difficult to source,” she adds. “The price for tupelo honey has increased 50 percent in the last year. Across the board it’s going up.”
Working Toward a Solution
The University of Minnesota’s Bee Lab, founded by renowned scientist Marla Spivak, a MacArthur fellow, is at the forefront of trying to solve the mystery. Lab worker Elaine Evans has studied bee diversity for 20 years, observing fields once swaying with nectar-rich wildflowers and clover being overtaken by corn and soybeans, cash crops that don’t require pollinators.
“We need to convince farmers that bees are important in general even if they’re not directly related to the crops they’re producing,” Evans says. “The Midwest was traditionally a good place for bees to make honey during the summer, but we’ve been losing them over the past 10 years.”
No one solution will resolve the bee crisis, but a number of efforts are aiming to chip away at the problem.
Urban beehives and community outreach. An outgrowth of the Bee Lab is the Bee Squad, a group that manages urban beehives in Minneapolis/St. Paul. Customers buy the honey at season’s end.
Becky Masterman, the Bee Squad coordinator since 2012, praises the public for embracing the cause. “We call them bee supporters—people who don’t want to keep bees but want to help bees,” she says. “A growing class of people are becoming educated about gardening and landscaping, having conversations and really making a difference with what’s going on with the bees. Their friends and customers ask questions and then more people come on board.”
Last year the Bee Squad managed 46 urban colonies. Over the winter it lost 17 percent of new colonies and 25 percent of established colonies, which was a much lower rate than the rest of the state.
This year the Bee Squad is managing more than 100 colonies, in places ranging from the rooftop of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts to the W at the Foshay Tower. Aveda’s corporate headquarters is home to a humming beehive. So are two local golf courses.
“People associate golf courses as unfriendly to bees, but almost every single time I’m there golfers will wave to me and ask how the bees are doing,” Masterman says. “They’re very engaged. These interactions have helped spread the word and get them invested, then they bring it home to their own landscaping practices and employees. A lot of people out there want to help.”
Masterman stresses education is essential. “The way to ultimately solve this problem is not to have more beekeepers, not putting more colonies out there,” she explains. “What’s killing the bees is lack of food and pesticides contaminating that food, the varroa mite, and disease. But if you ban a whole class of insecticides, what comes next? Would there be something worse?”
Reducing pesticides. In Minnesota, a punishing winter contributed to a decline of nearly 48 percent in the managed honeybee population. Extended periods of low temperatures meant colonies could not access food and starved. The state is working to enact solutions. The most recent legislative session passed two bills to protect bees from pesticides: one bars nurseries from falsely labeling plants “bee-friendly” when they’ve been pre-treated with lethal insecticides; the second compensates beekeepers for pesticide-related colony losses.
But even if food crops are not treated with pesticides, there is the danger of pesticide drift from a neighboring farm. If spraying occurs while a crop is in bloom and bees are actively feeding, the risk remains.
Masterman and other bee experts are realistic about big agriculture’s reliance on pesticides. But they do advocate restricting their use for cosmetic purposes. “I’d rather limit it and rethink it,” she says. “Farmers don’t want to kill the bees either, so we need to talk to them and see what kind of other choices they can make.”
Beyond managed populations. Threats to solitary bees are rarely mentioned in contrast to the publicity given to socially minded honeybees, a managed species brought to America from Europe in the 1600s. That’s because bee colonies controlled by people can be more easily analyzed, whereas tracking feral, native bees that don’t work for a queen is more challenging. But alarm bells are being sounded for these solo species.
In Europe, researchers claim 24 percent of bumblebees are heading toward extinction. “We have 4,000 species of native bees in North America and we know little about their status because people are not studying them,” says Jepsen. “One-third of bumblebees—the furry, robust, teddy bear type, which normally buzz from flower to flower—are facing extinction. We have this huge fauna of native bees providing pollination to agriculture, but no one is monitoring them. Diversity in pollinators provides an insurance policy.”
Restoring habitats. Studies show that restoring wild habitats near farms nurtures native bees and reduces soil erosion and loss of irrigation water. Successes have been seen in the form of increased production. One Michigan farm’s blueberry yield increased by 20 percent, and a California cherry tomato farm saw nearly tripled production. The good news is this important area is beginning to get the focus it needs; for example, a big part of the conservation work of The Xerces Society involves restoring native habitats in the national landscape.
Focusing on all pollinators. The Obama administration is moving to comprehensively address the pollinator crisis. Directives include increasing foraging sources on federal lands and assessing the effects of neonics and other pesticides, though not limiting or banning them. Approximately $50 million has been earmarked within the USDA for research and public-private grants to enhance pollinator habitats. Power lines and pipelines will also be evaluated to make sure they’re not interfering with pollinator wildlife.
Jepsen is encouraged by the president’s memorandum establishing a task force to address pollination issues, but she still stresses the gravity of what may still be to come.
“There are real pollination shortages in some parts of the world,” warns Jepsen. “We haven’t seen that in the United States. Yet.”
Does Urban Beekeeping Help?
The trend in urban and suburban beekeeping has been beneficial in spreading the word that bees need everyone’s help. Seattle and Spokane, Wash., and Eugene, Ore., have passed ordinances banning the use of neonics in their city parks.
Apiaries are atop high-profile landmarks like Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, the posh Fortnum and Mason in London, and the State Opera House in Vienna. The Michelin-starred Copenhagen restaurant Noma has added beehives to its outdoor garden.
Across the U.S., rooftops of hotels, corporate offices, museums, and grocers from Super Foodtown in Cedar Grove, N.J., to New Seasons Market in Happy Valley, Ore., are buzzing with hives.
While a good source of local honey, these flourishing city bees can’t do much to help their country cousins starving in the Corn Belt. Worker bees usually stick to within a mile or so of the hive; scouts may venture up to five miles away to search for food. Still, it’s heartening to see how well urban bees have responded to a healthier environment.
“There’s a surprising amount of diversity in gardens in urban areas, so cities can be a good place for bees,” says Joel Gardner of the University of Minnesota’s Bee Lab. “I’ve noticed the rusty-patched bumblebee making a bit of a comeback in the Twin Cities, and it had been listed as endangered in Canada. But urban beekeepers are all hobby beekeepers, so it won’t take care of the pollination problem.”
Closer Look: The Ripple Effect
Some might say it’s easier to list which foods wouldn’t be affected by the decimation of bees. More than 85 percent of all flowering plants require a pollinator. “Without pollinators, we’d be looking at a dramatically different food landscape,” says Sarina Jepsen of The Xerces Society. Here are just some of the foods that will be hit hard—by supply losses and skyrocketing prices—if the bee crisis isn’t resolved.
How to Become a Bee Supporter
Share these small steps with customers to get the word out about helping your local bees, and beyond.
- Plant a pollinator garden with a variety of flower colors and shapes that bloom at different times so nectar and pollen will be available throughout the growing season.
- Buy bee-safe organic plants and potting soil. Neonics are commonly applied to plants sold in garden stores and nurseries, which means home gardeners can unwittingly kill pollinators.
- Call a no-kill removal service, not an exterminator for nuisance beehives or swarms at your home or office.
- Be label-aware by supporting pure honey. More than half of the honey Americans consume each year is imported, oftentimes adulterated with corn or cane sugar.
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