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Where Have All the Bees Gone? (And What Does It Mean for Our Food?)

Since 2005, honeybee populations have shrunk alarmingly in the United States and Europe. What does a dearth of these black-and-yellow insects mean for our food supply?
Where Have All the Bees Gone? (And What Does It Mean for Our Food?)
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Think twice before swatting away a pesky, buzzing honeybee. Since 2005, worldwide honeybee populations have plummeted, leading farmers, scientists, and beekeepers down a rabbit hole of anxiety and worry about the future of food. It’s a complicated and controversial issue involving major chemical brands, environmentalists around the world, and even the United States government.

People should pay attention even if they’re not involved in these organizations, though. If honeybees continue to die, healthy eaters everywhere will have a harder time stocking up on favorite fruits and veggies. Read on to learn more about the current bee situation and how it affects everyone.Secret Lives of Bees—What’s the Deal?

Since 2005, beekeepers have seen dramatic declines in honeybee populations. Experts believe the death of bees is due to a phenomenon dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), in which the queen and young bees remain but the worker bees die off in droves, making it difficult (if not impossible) for the hive to survive. The sudden honeybee decline raises important questions about how humans are inadvertently harming the balance of nature—and some challening questions about what will happen to our food supply if bees keep dying.

CCD is somewhat mysterious, and it has a plethora of possible causes. Honeybee pests, diseases, poisoning via pesticides, immune-suppressing stress, changes in habitat or climate, poor nutrition, drought, and migratory stress can all trigger CCD in a previously healthy, productive hive. Recent bee deaths are alarming—normally, beekeepers lose between five and 10 percent of their managed colonies each year to illness, accident, or exposure. But since 2005, many beekeepers have experienced yearly losses of 30 to 90 percent of all managed colonies. 

Despite the long list of possible causes for the current bee crisis, one factor in particular stands out. Many environmentalists, scientists, and beekeepers believe that a relatively new variety of insecticides called neonicotinoids (also known as neonics) are at the root of the massive bee deaths.

Since the 1990s, farmers (especially large-scale growers of crops like corn, wheat, and soybeans) have utilized neonics as a way to keep pesky bugs at bay. The pesticides are embedded within seeds before they sprout, so the fully-grown plants contain potent chemicals in their leaves, flowers, and fruit. While the specific effects of this type of pesticide are still very much up for debate, recent studies have alternatively condemned and sanctioned this type of insecticide. What we do know is that neonicotinoids—and in particular clothianidin, a popular variety—are toxic to bees, which may be one of the big reasons honeybees are biting the dust in record numbers. A new study shows that exposure to the pesticides reduces bees' ability to fend off a gut parasite called Nosema ceranae, which causes digestive disease and often results in death. 

Honey Bunch—Why It Matters

Right now, you’re probably thinking “I’m not a bee, so why does this matter?” Here’s why: A full third of the American diet is dependent on pollination, and wild and domestic honeybees are responsible for 80 percent of pollination (No wonder they’re so busy!). What does that mean in practical terms? To find out, major supermarket chain Whole Foods released a shocking photo of what a typical grocery store would look like if bees were out of the equation. Without nature’s hardest workers, we can say “adios” to healthy favorites like avocados, kale, apples, carrots, broccoli, and hundreds of other items we eat every day.

Almonds are a particularly good example of bees’ surprising (and important!) influence on our food supply. California almond farms produce 80 percent of the world’s almonds and currently use two-thirds of American honeybee colonies. Without bees, an average orchard would grow less than one-sixth of its current, pollinated output. Ever wonder why almond butter is so darn expensive (when compared to its tasty cousin peanut butter)? It has to do with shrinking bee populations: Fewer honeybees mean fewer almonds, which means less almond butter everywhere—so people have to cough up the big bucks to get even a small jar of the good stuff.

Almonds are considered a “bellwether” crop for the state of our country’s hives (Think of them like the canary in the, er, agricultural field). If California almond farms are suffering for lack of pollinators, it’s a bad indicator for the rest of the food supply. 

The Bees’ Knees—The Takeaway

So what can we, as consumers, do to shore up American bee colonies? Washington State University has created a honeybee sperm bank to preserve and improve the state’s bee populations. While donating to the bank may not be feasible for most homeowners, there are plenty of small steps to help bees get back on their feet (or antennae). Anyone with a yard can cultivate bee-friendly plants (such as honeysuckle, clover, and basil, for example), stop using garden pesticides and fertilizers, or (for the yard-owners and yardless alike) participate in a community garden. Politically minded people can also sign petitions to restrict the use of bee-killing pesticides.

But any large-scale changes will have to come from the government. Earlier this month, the U.S. House of Representatives added a “pollinator protection” amendment to the 2013 Farm Bill. The so-called Hastings Amendments (named after Congressman Alcee L. Hastings from Florida) will provide funds for research about CCD and resources for beekeepers. The USDA’s Report on Honey Bee Health, published last October, determined the four main factors (poor nutrition, pathogens and pests, pesticides, and breeding/genetics) that harm honeybee colonies. The next step is for the CCD Steering Committee to study the various causes and effects of those four factors to learn more about Colony Collapse Disorder and how to stop it.

Whether or not neonics are causing large-scale honeybee death in North America and Europe, environmental advocates are pushing for the U.S. government to outlaw the potent insecticides just in case. Last spring, the European Union instituted a two-year ban on all neonicotinoids in April after reviewing a comprehensive report about the dangers the chemicals pose. And recently, the EU banned farmers from using fipronil, a (potentially) bee-harming pesticide, on corn and sunflower fields. The impact this will have on bee populations is still unclear, but that hasn’t stopped Americans from seeking a ban in their own country. In Oregon, where over 50,000 bees recently died after being exposed to pesticides, lawmakers just passed a ban on sprayable neonicotinoids. Whether or not it stems the tide of bee deaths in the state remains to be seen.  

Either way, the pesticide bans will have an important effect on the scientific, agricultural, and environmental communities. With bans in the EU and Oregon in place, scientists and beekeepers will be able to understand exactly how (and if) potent chemicals affect honeybees. Hopefully, it will bring us one step closer to understanding how CCD works, how to keep bees healthy, and whether we need to start hoarding the avocados yet.

Do you think a neonicotinoid ban will help save American honeybees? Tell us what you think the comments below or tweet the author @SophBreene

Special thanks to the Environmental Protection Agency's press office for their contributions to this article. 

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