We’ve all heard about the plight of the honey bee, and their tanking population numbers. There have been numerous plausible suggestions bandied around to explain their reduction, but, when it boils down to it, nobody really knows. With a recent announcement, decreed by two British scientists, it seems we could be killing them with kindness.
The Bees Knees
Let’s just have a look at what the honey bee is able to do for us, firstly. It’s quite simple, honey bees pollinate. Everything from nuts to sunflowers, honey bees buzz along and serve as pollinators, for over 95 fruits (as well as crops), transferring pollen from a particular source (pollenizer) to another plant that requires fertilization. Bees are, of course, inadvertently transferring the pollen, whilst they travel from plant to plant feeding, or during the acquisition of nectar.
The benefits of honey bees is obvious. Firstly, they help tremendously with agriculture, which explains why farmers are unable to rely solely on regional, feral bees. Instead, a number of agricultural workers develop contracts with special bee keepers, who move from location to location to yield bee hives in close proximity to flourishing fields. Taking an example of this, to pollinate the 420,000 acres of almond trees, in California, it takes up to one million colonies of honey bees. A part of the reason this system works so successfully is due to the bees engaging in flower fidelity; this is the bees’ means of targeting only a specific type of flower, despite being attracted to others.
In addition, the honey bee is capable of extracting, as its name indicates, honey and also aids in pollination of normal garden flowers. To put it bluntly, we need the honey bee for our agricultural systems and, ultimately, our survival. According to Kevin J. Hackett of the Agricultural Research Science group, who produced an article on Bee Benefits to Agriculture, it is estimated that the pollination of United States agricultural crops is worth over $14 billion, yearly.
The Great Bee Decline
Unfortunately, for everyone concerned, the honey bee population has started to decline at an alarming rate. 30 years ago there was approximately four million honey bees, a figure which has now declined by over half.
Take away the bees, you can say goodbye to a significant proportion of plant reproduction, and vast swathes of crops would remain unfertilized.
Scientists are observing a phenomenon, known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), more frequently. CCD was first coined during 2006, whereby local bee populations would very rapidly disappear for no explicable reason, leaving behind perfectly healthy hives. Scientists can only speculate as to the possible reasons, which they consider multi-factorial.
The “Stressor” Suggestions
A number of hypotheses have been presented to explain the mysterious disappearance of the honey bee; a recent report published by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), in 2010, offers a number of likely candidates. Mankind has had a direct impact upon the landscape, through destruction of natural ecosystems, which have gradually been replaced by concrete jungles. This diminishes sources of food and nectar for bees, thereby restricting bee populations.
To compound this problem, globalization has lead to the introduction of a number of bee-related pathologies. The ominously named Varroa destructor, a parasitic mite, remains the honey bees most serious concern, leaching from the circulatory system of their prey, before moving on to infect the entire hive, and others in close proximity. The parasite plays host to a number of deadly viral and bacterial diseases, and has spread across the globe to affect vast bee populations.
In addition, a small hive beetle, called Aethina tumida has occupied many regions in North America, a blight that used to be confined to the African continent. However, now endemic in the States, the beetle is capable of disrupting the structure of honeycombs, as well as the bees’ storage supplies.
Two other key issues, influencing bee numbers, include the increase in pollutants, which disrupt the bees’ ability to detect food sources and follow scent trails, and the use of agricultural insecticides and herbicides. Many laboratory experiments suggest that insecticides, such as Clothianidin, can have a sensory and cognitive impact upon bee populations, whilst neonicotinoids (which the European Union intend to ban) may drastically increase toxicity levels.
In addition to these noteworthy issues, poor bee keeping practices may also play a central role in the bee population’s decline. Transportation of bee hives, by the truck-load, may create temperature-dependent stress, whilst encouraging the spread of disease. Splitting bee colonies, during a hive’s decline, and re-using old supplies may also result in disease/chemical contamination, in turn, negatively impacting the population number.
The Urban Sprawl
In an attempt to improve bee populations, there has been a recent surge in the number urban bee keepers, particularly in London, England. Unfortunately, experts have suggested that this too may be the incorrect course of action.
Two British scientists, working for the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects, of the University of Sussex, suggest too many beehives have sprung up, in too small an expanse. According to the pair (Francis Ratnieks and Karin Alton), the number of flowering plants is simply not sufficient to sustain the demand from the high number of urban-based bee hives. This actually places an even greater strain on the population, causing the number to plummet further.
So, what are urban bee keepers to do? It has been suggested, quite obviously, planting more flowers could aid the dwindling bee population. And, despite these changes it remains vitally important that areas don’t become overloaded with hives. It has been argued that this factor, along with the operations of inexperienced, “hobbyist” bee keepers, could propagate disease more rapidly.
Although this issue over hive “overcrowding” in London is not yet applicable to U.S. cities, it serves as a warning to the dangers of overdriving particular initiatives. So, are we killing the bee population with kindness? Not really. Without these bee hives, it is likely that far fewer bees with be present within heavily urbanized regions. We just simply haven’t struck the right balance, yet.
By: James Fenner