Photo courtesy of Danila Urbina via Flickr.
What are bees good for? A lot more than honey, chapstick, and matriarchal role models.
Whether you fear bees for their sting or envy their stripes, the familiar buzzing of queen-mandated pollination is a natural and necessary part of life. Bees keep crops healthy, our salads delicious, and agricultural industries thriving.
As such, bees are important economically, as well as environmentally:
- Colonies are rented out to pollinate crops, meaning the access and availability of produce depends on bees
- According to the USDA, they add $15 billion to the value of U.S. crops each year
Unfortunately, honeybees are dying off fast, scientists say, and the reason why isn’t so clear.
So, what’s happening?[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”Zfl72hn3a8keXbqv3a7BxdbRRgKRBpPc”]According to a US beekeeper survey’s preliminary findings, in the U.S., beekeepers lost 42.1 percent of their bee colonies between April 2014 and April 2015 — the second largest annual loss record to date.
Hive loss is to be expected, especially in the winter. Beekeepers can typically handle a 18.9 percent loss during cold seasons, but as of late it’s been closer to 30 percent each winter. And what’s worse: summer hive loss is increasing, too, and even exceeded winter deaths for the first time in 2014.
This trend has been puzzling to entomologists, and terrifying for beekeepers.
What’s the culprit? Experts say it’s a complicated panalpe of factors. These include:
- Disease: The varroa mite, specifically, attaches to bees’ bodies and sucks their blood, jumping from hive to hive and wiping out colonies
- Pesticides: A type of pesticide called ‘neonicotinoids,’ though safe for humans, is thought to be harmful for bees and other insects
- Weather: As temperatures rise, bee habitats are contracting, leading researchers have reported.
- Nutrition: The nutrients bees need to become strong and healthy are dwindling due to the plowing over of wildflower habitats
What can be done?
On June 23, 2015, President Obama signed a memorandum establishing the first-ever pollinator strategy. Meanwhile, the Agriculture Department has offered $8 million in incentives to build new habitats for honeybees.
But is this enough? Dave Goulson, founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, thinks that if the plan is put into action, it could be a big help. But it happens often that political documents fail to reach the execution stage.
The major things needed to help honey bees:
- More flowers: Planting more flowers is a non-controversial and entirely helpful strategy that expands bee habitats and keeps their nutrition diverse
- More research: Scientists don’t know enough about the long-term effects of pesticides and other chemicals on bees. More research will lead to better knowledge and quicker solutions
- Money: These both, unfortunately, require a good amount of funding.
By Goulson’s reckoning, it would take $75 billion a year to set up a network of natural reserves all over the world. Though this amount is a drop in the bucket compared to other types of government and corporate spending, the interest level isn’t enough to make it a reality.
At the end of the day, though bees and other bugs are easy to ignore, their physical smallness in no way undermines the enormity of their impact. When humans realize how vital bugs are, it could be then that we give them the attention (and flowers!) needed to help them, help us.