When some people see bees, they get anxious. They worry about getting stung, especially if they are allergic to bee stings. This is an understandable reaction, given the potential fatality of a single bee sting for some people. Unsurprisingly, some people kill bees when they see them. However, killing bees should be avoided, given that (a) bees play a very critical role in the lives of all people and (b) bee colonies, particularly honeybee colonies, are currently on the decline in the United States. While many people understand the fact that bees pollinate flowers, they may not appreciate the fact that many of the food crops that people eat – 70 of the top 100 food crops, in fact – are pollinated by bees (Greenpeace, n.d.). Roughly 90% of the world’s nutrition comes from these crops, making this issue global in scope (Greenpeace, n.d.). In 2009 alone, 11% of the United States’ agricultural gross domestic product can be connected to bees, representing $14.6 billion per year. Within those numbers, roughly 20% of that total, or $3.07 billion, is the result of wild colonies (Koh et al., 2016). In short, America relies significantly on bees.
The decline of bee colonies should not be underestimated. In their survey of American bees Koch et al. (2015) determined that at least four bumblebee species have significantly declined when compared to historic estimates of both population abundance and geographic range. Even more worryingly, it appears that one bee species has become extinct (Koch et al., 2015). This decline of the colonies has been taking place over the last half century and has occurred in both wild colonies and managed colonies (Ellis, Evans, & Pettis, 2010). In terms of managed colonies, the number of such colonies has dropped from 5 million to 2.66 million from 1940s to today (D’Angelo, 2016). According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) (2016), during the first quarter of 2016 (January – March), a total of 429,000 colonies, or 17% of the total colonies, in the United States were lost. During that same quarter in 2015 500,000 colonies, or 18% of colonies, were lost. That loss of colonies represented the largest number of colonies lost in the previous five quarters. It should be noted that between April 2015 and March 2016 beekeepers in the United States lost 44% of their colonies, a 3.5% increase in losses from the previous year (D’Angelo, 2016).
To what can these losses be attributed? The answer to that is multifaceted. There are several phenomena which seem to be affecting the colonies. Greenpeace (n.d.) notes that several factors contribute to the deaths of bees including air pollution, drought, global warning, habitat destruction, nutrition deficit, and pesticides, a finding echoed by Koh et al. (2016). Additionally, pest infestations (such as mites and beetles) and fungal diseases like Nosema bombi have also contributed to decline in the colonies (Cameron, Lim, Lozier, Duennes, & Thorp, 2016; Ellis, Evans, & Pettis, 2010; NASS, 2016). The not-well-understood colony collapse disorder (CCD) has also been implicated in the decline of the colonies (Ellis, Evans, & Pettis, 2010; NASS, 2016). However, two of these factors seem to contribute more than the others: habitat loss and pesticides (Greenpeace, n.d.).
Habitat loss can affect both managed colonies as well as wild ones. In their survey of bee populations Koch et al. (2015) discovered that across the various habitats they explored, only 20% of the total bee populations studied were living in habitats that were considered intact or relatively stable as identified by the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF). This suggests that many of the habitats in which bees live are not intact or stable which can affect the health of the colonies. Koh et al. (2014) endorse this finding in their assertion that habitat loss has been connected to most of the observed declines in observed colonies. Some of the habitat loss can be attributed to the spread of human living spaces like suburbs and other real estate developments. Some of this habitat loss is the result of the conversion of the bees’ natural habitats for the purpose of planting row crops and mono-culture farms (Greenpeace, n.d.; Koh et al., 2014). The degradation of these habitats limits their food sources and undermines the health of the colonies.
Pesticides have also been significantly implicated in the collapse of colonies. In addition to the conversion of bee habitats to mono-culture farms, the farms often utilize harmful pesticides which essentially poison the bees. In fact, researchers studying bee pollen discovered more than 150 different chemical residues which reflect a fatal cocktail of pesticides (Greenpeace, n.d.). Even if managed colonies are protected from such pesticides, the native, wild colonies are still vulnerable to the chemicals used in modern industrial agricultural practices (Koh et al., 2014). In one study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) which focused on neonicotinoids, which is a commonly-used insecticide, researchers discovered that pesticides like neonicotinoids can affect the cognitive capabilities of bees including their memory and their ability to learn (D’Angelo, 2016) as well as acting on their nervous systems (Greenpeace, n.d.). Researchers also discovered that the bees’ ability to forage was impaired (D’Angelo, 2016).
The pesticides which the bees ingest not only build up in individual bees but also within the colonies, primarily through the honey the bees create (Greenpeace, n.d.). This honey is fed to infant larvae (Greenpeace, n.d.). In other words, bees that may not even leave the hive can be affected by the pesticides since it can permeate their honey. The bees that do not die immediately from the pesticides can experience what Greenpeace (n.d.) calls “sub-lethal systemic effects” as well as weakness and the aforementioned cognitive impairment (D’Angelo, 2016). Those larvae that are fed the tainted honey experience developmental effects (Greenpeace, n.d.). Those bees may not survive to adulthood, and in conjunction with the bees that die as a result of the pesticides (either immediately or slowly over time), fewer and fewer bees remain to do the work of the hive. Bees that do not die do not necessarily recover and become weak, so the bees that remain to do the work are not likely to be as productive or efficient (Greenpeace, n.d.). This limits both their ability to feed their own hives as well as influencing their ability to contribute to pollination which affects the nation’s ability to feed itself. When combined with the effects of habitat loss, which diminish the food sources of the bees, this produces what Greenpeace (n.d.) refers to as “the nightmare formula” for colony collapse.
Both habitat loss and pesticide use represent significant threats to bees for both managed and wild colonies. They also represent the most immediate areas to which problem-solving can be addressed. While many people do not have the ability to influence large-scale agricultural practices, you – the audience – have the ability to donate funds to the Pollinator Partnership (2015), a non-profit American organization whose mission is “to promote the health of pollinators…through conservation, education, and research.” Through donations to the Pollinator Partnership, the organization is able to start and sustain conservation programs which protect bee habitats which can teach the public ways of protecting and supporting pollinator populations such as planting gardens and encouraging the purchase of organic and locally-grown fruits and vegetables. The Partnership also educates farmers about ecologically-sound agricultural practices which can have a large-scale impact on both habitat and pesticide effects.
Conserving existing bee colonies and fostering their health as well as establishing new healthy colonies which will thrive are critical. However, protecting habitats from development or conversion and/or getting farmers to discontinue the use of deadly pesticides will take time. Overcoming the financial and legislative influence of large corporations which produce the pesticides is another barrier. However, the work of organizations like the Pollinator Partnership and Greenpeace has the potential to exert legislative influence to highlight the plight of the bees and the ramifications of their decline in this country.
- Cameron, S. A., Lim, H. C., Lozier, J. D., Duennes, M. A., & Thorp, R. (2016). Test of the
invasive pathogen hypothesis of bumble bee decline in North America. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(16), 4386-4391.
- D’Angelo, C. (2016). The latest report on bees is a total buzzkill. The Huffington Post.
Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/bee-colony-decline-2016_us_57323a42e4b0bc9cb04859bf
- Ellis, J. D., Evans, J. D., & Pettis, J. (2010). Colony losses, managed colony population decline,
and Colony Collapse Disorder in the United States. Journal of Apicultural Research, 49(1), 134-136.
- Greenpeace. (n.d.). Save the bees. Sustainable food. Retrieved from
- Koch, J. B., Lozier, J., Strange, J. P., Ikerd, H., Griswold, T., Cordes, N., … & Cameron, S. A.
(2015). USBombus, a database of contemporary survey data for North American Bumble Bees (Hymenoptera, Apidae, Bombus) distributed in the United States. Biodiversity Data Journal, (3), e6833. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4698456/
- Koh, I., Lonsdorf, E. V., Williams, N. M., Brittain, C., Isaacs, R., Gibbs, J., & Ricketts, T. H.
(2016). Modeling the status, trends, and impacts of wild bee abundance in the United States. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(1), 140-145.
- National Agricultural Statistics Service (2016). Honey bee colonies. Agricultural Statistics
Board, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). Retrieved from http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/MannUsda/viewDocumentInfo.do?documentID=1943
- Pollinator Partnership. (2015). Who we are: About us. Pollinator Partnership. Retrieved from