You may not realize it, but you owe about one-third of everything you eat to honey bees. In fact, if honey bees went extinct, so would humans. If you did not know that, you are not alone!
So why are we so reliant on honey bees? Honey bees forage from flowers and other plants, and in the process they pick up pollen from one plant and transfer to another. This is cross pollination, and it is how plants reproduce. Honey bees are really efficient at pollination, so we have come to rely on them for a lot of our agricultural needs. Honey bees are actually driven across the U.S., in what is known as “migratory beekeeping”, in order to pollinate major crops. Because we are so reliant on honey bees , they are considered a keystone species. Without them, our ecosystem would look quite different. They not only pollinate the fruits and vegetables we eat, but they also pollinate plants that are a major input for agricultural feed, so they also are responsible for our meat as well.
Knowing this, it should worry you that in 2006 beekeepers across the U.S. started seeing a large decline in their honey bee colonies, especially characterized by empty hives. This phenomenon was named Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), but it’s cause has remained a mystery. There are a lot of possible contributing reasons for CCD, including parasites, pathogens, pesticides, stress, climate change, and electropollution. Stress is probably a very important contributing factor, as stress causes bees to be more susceptible to parasites, pathogens, and pesticide poisoning. As population continues to increase and crop production increases, bees are going to be even more stressed and CCD could get worse. Electropollution is an interesting potential cause, as studies have shown that having a cell phone near a hive for 15 minutes a day for 3 months resulted in lower queen reproductivity and less worker bees returning to the hive because of destroyed navigational skill.
Pollination is responsible for $15 billion dollars in added crop value in the United States. Pollination not only makes fruits and vegetables grow better, but it makes them bigger and have less defects, causing them to sell for a higher market price. Just as an example so you see how reliant on honey bees we are, the almond crop in California alone requires 1.3 million honey bee colonies. Not only do we need honey bees, we need a lot of them!
So what will happen if CCD continues? Well, as you can see in the picture below, it would not be good. We would have to find some other source of pollination, like artificial pollination, where someone has to climb into a tree, take a little paint brush, and spread pollen around. Obviously, this is not a very efficient method, and even worse, there is usually only about a three day window to get this done. We could also rely on other pollinators, like bumble bees or hummingbirds, but they are not as efficient as honey bees and are more selective in the plants they pollinate.
Don’t get too discouraged, as there is still hope for the honey bees! In order to stop CCD, we need to understand it better. This means a lot more research needs to happen. The public also needs to become more aware of CCD so that they can make behavior changes that will help the honey bee population. Crop diversification, less pesticide use, urban beekeeping, and planting wildflowers could all help the honey bee population recover and allow us to keep eating the fruits and vegetables we love!
If you want to learn more about CCD, check out this awesome video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=38Wj4byHML0
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