As most people go about their day paying little mind to the tiny honeybee, scientists all across the country are bearing witness to the carnage of a bee-apocalypse on our microscopes. Like bombs destroying entire cities, the weapons of mass destruction killing off our honeybees include pesticides, disease and habitat destruction. If you enjoy a good meal, you should be concerned.
No other insect serves the needs of humans more than the honeybee; yet for months, many honeybees are left to dine on fruits doused in carcinogenic pesticides. These can cause neurotoxicity (damaging impact to the central nervous system, peripheral nerves or sensory organs) or hormone disruption, and are known to increase mortality rates by a thousand-fold when combined.
At the same time, honeybees are vulnerable to varroa mites that transmit viruses and bacteria that paralyze them, cause deformities and deteriorate their health. As if that weren't bad enough, internal fungal parasites further decrease their life spans. Meanwhile, we continue on our "business as usual" agricultural production and suburbia developments.
For honeybees, colony-collapse disorder has caused a third of the colonies in the U.S. to die-off. These colonies represent a $20 billion to $30 billion industry that is responsible for meeting pollination demands of almost a third of our food crops, including chocolate, almonds, vanilla, melons and squash.
Furthermore, nicotinelike pesticides have been associated with such high bee die-offs that the European Union banned the chemicals for two years. While some may argue that there have been large, yet isolated, bee die-offs in history, we cannot ignore the recent worldwide colony-collapse-disorder phenomenon, as well as the overwhelming evidence of many other endangered pollinators today. We are closer to a bee-apocalypse now given exponential population growth, continued habitat destruction, pollution and climate change. These factors make it difficult for bees to bounce back.
Others say some pollinators are actually increasing in numbers, but this is usually a result of habitat preservation/restoration, or socioeconomic strategies. Still, bee-apocalypse naysayers may also allude to adaptation strategies beekeepers have made to keep their hives afloat. These strategies are both expensive and time-consuming, but vital if we are to battle this critical decline.
Therefore, to understand the bee-apocalypse, we need to start by considering the relationships between beekeeping and agriculture management. My research focuses on how multiple stressors affect colony health. In order to improve honeybee well-being, we are seeking natural alternatives to controlling varroa mites, while placing hives in organic and conventional farms. A transition to safer pesticides coupled with biodiverse habitats seem to be the best method of managing these hives. Similar to other researchers, I have noticed that honeybee well-being is highest in biodiverse organic farms closest to natural habitats. It is also significantly better than in an urban monocropped farm, where irritable, starving bees and dead hives show glimpses of an apocalyptic future.
Therefore, while the bee-apocalypse is a real and impending risk, there are things we can do to keep it from happening. Improvements in bee populations have stemmed from action. We cannot assume there won't be a bee-apocalypse given historic or expected changes in management — the action has to actually happen. If we continue "business as usual," a bee-apocalypse is likely.
However, there is great hope to see them bounce back if we make big changes — such as reducing toxic pesticides and creating more biodiverse habitats within our lawns and farms.
Stephany Alvarez-Ventura is a researcher at Florida International University and coordinator of the university's agroecology program.Copyright © 2015, CT Now