Importance of Honey Bees for Sustaining Life on Earth

By Sandra Phaneuf and Kimberly Feliciano

A drastic recent reduction in the number of honeybees in the US could constitute a major threat to our food supply. While the honeybee population has been steadily diminishing in the last fifty years, the extensive losses in 2006 have caused some scientists to label this the first bee epidemic in US history. It is estimated that this year, US beekeepers lost 1/4 of their colonies which is five times the normal average. What’s more concerning is that the bee disappearances are a mystery: they leave their colonies seeking food and simply never return. Few dead bees have been found in or around the colonies, leaving beekeepers and scientists puzzled.

Just how important are honeybees to the human diet? Typically, according to the US Department of Agriculture, these under-appreciated workers pollinate 80% of our flowering crops which constitute 1/3 of everything we eat.Their loss could effect not only dietary staples such as apples, broccoli, strawberries, nuts, asparagus, blueberries and cucumbers, but may threaten our beef and dairy industries if alfalfa is not available for feed. One Cornell University study estimated that honeybees annually pollinate $14 billion worth of seeds and crops in the US. Essentially, if honeybees disappear, they could take most of our insect pollinated plants with them, potentially reducing mankind to little more than a bread and water diet.

Bees are essential in agriculture for pollination

The Honey Bee which is of the tribe Apini in the genus Apis is considered the only true honey bee. The first Apis bees appear in the fossil record in deposits dating about 35 million years ago during the Oligocene period.
(Photo copyright © by Insect Stings - www.insectstings.co.uk)

It is disputed if the recent phenomenon, referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), is different from past cycles of die-offs, which the honeybees ultimately survived. Limited phases of decline similar to CCD were recorded as early as 1896. The causes throughout recent bee history of “spring dwindle,” “autumn collapse,” “disappearing disease” and “May disease” were never found. What is clear is that the recent crisis is more rapid and that our level of dependence on these busy creatures means their survival is in our best interest, and could indeed be crucial to our own survival.

Theories to explain the disappearance have pointed to everything from cell phones to a “bee rapture”, and as rumors spread across the internet, scientists and experts have gathered to try to find a solution. “We don’t really know what the cause is. There are a lot of intriguing possibilities,” Dr. Ward Stone, the New York State Wildlife Pathologist, told The Informed Constituent. “I think the bees have been in trouble now for a number of years. Diseases are being introduced every few years. This seems to be a time of crisis and a time for a lot of research” said Stone. (audio file with Dr. Stone available below)

Research indeed: among those working to understand and address the problem are Bee Alert Technologies, Inc, Florida Department of Agriculture, USDA/ARS, and the Honeybee Research facility of UC at Davis, to name a few. The American Beekeepers Federation has asked Congress for $15 million to research the problem. And a new CCD Working Group, comprised of university faculty, state regulatory officials, cooperative extension educators and industry representatives has been formed to identify the cause and seek solutions.

Scientists believe the likely culprits for the phenomenon include mites; fungal, bacterial and viral diseases; inadequate nutrition; and pesticides. Many have begun to believe it is not a single element, but rather a combination of negative conditions that are leading to the bee’s demise. During a roundtable discussion of the issue for Salon.com, Eric Mussen of the Honeybee Research Facility at Davis explained “What you’re going to find is that in most cases there is not going to be one factor that did them in; it’s going to be a combination. This is the perfect storm for honeybees.”

Pesticides are a big question. According to Dr. Stone, “Government is doing a very poor job of monitoring what pesticides are killing in the wild. There’s been very little money put into it the last decade, so hopefully that’s going to increase and it may well be that several of the new pesticides that are being widely used are involved in this. This is something that’s got to be eliminated.” Furthermore, many homeowners believe dandelions and clover are weeds, that lawns should be only grass to be mowed down regularly, and that everything but the grass should be highly treated with pesticides. This makes a hostile environment for bees, butterflies and other pollinators.

As for cell phones, Dr. Stone said several scientists have been talking about that high tension and electric wires, and not just the cell phones, but the towers. “We really need to put some effort into checking that out because cell phones are growing exponentially.” Stone expressed his concern about more children using the cell phones because their central nervous system is much more sensitive. “A lot of people are going to poo-poo the cell phones, but I want to see that worked out carefully. There’s several scientists in the world who have talked about it, including German scientists. The Germans have been very good on bee biology, so it has to be taken seriously, and of course there’s a lot of people around who wouldn’t want to see research done on cell phones.”

While it is tempting to point the finger at a specific condition in hopes of finding a simple solution, the truth is far more complex. Tests demonstrating, for example, that Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) have only a limited effect on the insects immune system may not take into account the additional stress created by exposure to mites, or the extremely high mortality rate created when you add these conditions to poor nutrition. And while most researchers believe the honeybee will eventually adapt to their environment and survive this “storm”, the greater fear is what the bees signify about the future of our planet.

Pollination chart

“The sudden and unexplained loss of honeybee populations is an early warning sign for coming disruptions in modern agriculture,” Mike Adams, executive director of the Consumer Wellness Center claims. “The collapse of pollinators is merely a sign of things to come. Humans will either find a way to live in balance with the planet, or they may ultimately face the same fate as the honeybees.”

“Whatever the cause is, it may effect much more than just bees,” Dr. Stone said. “The bees may be telling us of a much larger problem.” Little is known about the role, for example, that global warming may play in the picture. Warmer temperatures may have caused many of the plants that bees depend on for food to bloom a month earlier than they did in the 1970s. A National Academy of Sciences study has shown that all of our pollinators are on decline.

Queen bee cartoon
Cartoon by Alexander Perry. Alexander is a Junior at Sage College of Albany. He’s working towards a BFA in Illustration/Fine Arts

Could the honeybee issue highlight other problems with the sustainability of our complex environment? Wayne Esaias, an amateur beekeeper and member of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center told the Salon roundtable, “I think we are facing a series of problems like this, problems that are environmental in nature, and this has to be a real eye-opener for me as to how poorly prepared this country and countries around the world are in taking note of how climate change or global change will impact our ecosystems. Humanity is affecting our ecosystems, and it’s very complex to determine whether this is due to environmental change or some disease.”

In seeking a solution to the current bee crisis, perhaps researchers will provide us with some surprising insights about our future.

More information on Colony Collapse Disorder, including detailed up-to-date reports, can be found on the Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium website at: http://maarec.org

The Honey Bee which is of the tribe Apini in the genus Apis is considered the only true honey bee. The first Apis bees appear in the fossil record in deposits dating about 35 million years ago during the Oligocene period.
(Photo copyright © by Insect Stings - www.insectstings.co.uk)

Audio clip

The following audio clip was from a June 11, 2007 follow-up phone interview with NY State Wildlife Pathologist Dr. Ward Stone. In this conversation, Dr. Stone discusses possible causes for the decline of honey bees (pesticides and cell phones), and also gives a brief update to the spread of West Nile Virus in New York.

  • Voice 1 - Kimberly Feliciano
  • Voice 2 - Dr. Ward Stone