Honey bees are known for their production of honey and beeswax, as well as the large role they play in the pollination of plants and flowers. They are considered super-organisms due to their complex social systems and dynamic, tight-knit interactions with one another and their environments.
Out of the 20,000 different kinds of bees, we often recognize honey bees as the most charismatic representative of the species. There are actually seven recognized species of honey bee within the genus Apis, with the most popular and well-known being the Western honey bee (Apis mellifera).
As excellent pollinators, honey bees play a crucial role in agriculture and producing the food that we eat. In 2000, honey bee pollination in the United States agricultural industry was estimated to have a value of $14.6 billion, which is a 36.3% increase from previous years (Morse and Calderone). Meanwhile, honey production is valued around $200 million. Out of the 115 leading agricultural crop plants worldwide, 75% or 87 of them depend on or benefit from pollination (Klein et al. 2007). This is a huge portion of important crops that require bees and pollination for reproduction!
Bees can help make crops not only look and taste better, but also help increase the amount that can be grown at a given time. One study exploring how pollinators benefit agricultural crops found that, when bees are involved in pollination of fruit and vegetable crops, their quality improves and the yield will grow by up to 71% (Bartomeus et al. 2014).
Since early recorded history, indigenous people have been culturing or exploiting bees, eventually leading to the domestication of the honey bee species that humans keep today. Roffet-Salque et al. (2015) found that people have harvested bees for honey and beeswax as far back as the Neolithic era. With no other sweeteners, honey was an energy-filled food source, while beeswax served as an early form of glue, medicine, etc. Today, beekeepers keep honey bee colonies for their honey and pollination, or even as an environmentally-friendly hobby.
For centuries, honey bees have offered a myriad of medicinal benefits and practical uses that we can still enjoy to this day. Honey can help a sore throat, soothe digestive problems, and improve skin health. Pollen, wax, and propolis (a resin-like material from the buds of trees usually obtained from beehives) also offer a wide variety of craft, manufacturing, and medical applications. According to WebMD, bee pollen can be consumed for a wide range of benefits, including appetite stimulation, hay fever, mouth sores, bleeding problems, and gastrointestinal issues. Propolis was used historically in cosmetics and to treat ailments. Meanwhile, beeswax has a wide range of uses, from oiling furniture and granite polisher to bow string lubricant and lip balm.
Bees have been dying at a terrifying rate. Koh et al. performed a large-scale analysis for the trends and status of wild bees in the United States, with a focus on correlations with impacts on pollination services. They found that, between 2008 and 2013, “bee abundance declined across 23% of US land area”. Furthermore, their research indicated that farmers in the US may experience increased costs and destabilization in crop production in accordance with the decline of pollinators (Koh et al. 2016). Unfortunately, domestic bees are showing declining trends as well.
According to Bee Informed, 44% of beekeeper colonies were lost in the United States between 2015 and 2016. These trends, based on a survey looking at commercial as well as small-scale beekeepers, appear to be getting worse. We know that we need bees, and we know that they’re in trouble – so why are bees dying? The answer isn’t simple.
Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony suddenly disappears, leaving behind the queen and essentially collapsing or breaking up the colony. This is a major concern, because while bees are declining, the demand for pollinator-dependent crops is increasing. In Marla Spivak’s TED Talk discussion “Why bees are disappearing”, she mentions that there has been a 300% increase in crop production that requires bee pollination. This list includes a large variety of fruits and vegetables that we buy every day at the grocery store, as well as crops, such as alfalfa, that feed the livestock that we also consume. She goes on to mention that having bees naturally pollinate crops results in much higher quality fruit than “unnatural” pollination, such as manually distributing pollen by hand. Despite the massive significance of goods and services that bees provide for us, we now have only half of the number of managed hives in the United States than we did in 1945. This means that the number of managed beehives has declined while crop demand has increased, creating a major imbalance for agriculture as well as ecosystems. Why?
Bees are in danger of disappearing from our environment. With the expansion of human development, wild bees have been losing their natural habitats as the land transitions into industrial agriculture. Additionally, warming climate conditions have caused major shifts in plant communities, and therefore the behavior and survival of bees. Conte and Navajas (2008) studied the impacts of climate change on European honey bees and found that climate change could have a significant impact on factors related to stress and disease, and a combination of human-induced environmental changes could hinder the ability of bees to adapt to these changes. In other words, many bee populations are facing a large amount of endangerment at a greater rate than they can adjust to, despite their great adaptability. In their assessment of pollinator contributions to agricultural crops, Bartomeus et al. (2014) mentioned that the loss of wild bees can partially be mitigated by the presence of managed honey bees; however, wild populations are major contributors and landscape-scale actions should be taken to restore wild bee populations. Ultimately, both domestic and wild bees are important pollinators for industrial agriculture as well as wild ecosystems, and they need our help.
Pesticide use is another major factor that is putting bee populations at risk. Pesticides are meant to keep “bad” bugs, weeds, and fungi out of our crops. However, these pesticides can have unintentional negative side effects on the “good” bugs, including honey bees and other important pollinators. One type of widely used pesticide is called “neonicotinoid”, and it’s causing major issues for both commercial bred honey bees as well as wild bee populations. When a crop is treated with neonicotinoid chemicals, it becomes toxic to any insects that interacts with it, even non-target species. In an article from Mercola, Dr. Mercola discusses how neonicotinoid pesticides are used on many garden-store plants, even ones that are considered to be “bee-friendly plants”. He goes on to say that negative effects on bees can be mitigated by encouraging manufacturers to stop producing toxic neonictinoids and instead focus on using alternative organic weed and pest control options.
Yet another major factor threatening honey bees is the varroa mite (Varroa destructor). This very small, round mite is a terror for honey bees and it can destroy entire colonies if left untreated. A verroa mite outbreak can mean devastating economic impacts for beekeepers, and it is considered to be one of the primary factors involved in CCD. In a recent press release from University of Maryland, honey bee researchers found that varroa mite infestations are more of a serious problem than previously thought, and infestations appear to be worse in stationary hives. What’s worse is that varroa mites can act as a vector for severe viruses and they can spread diseases between hives. Only appropriate and consistent treatment and care provided by beekeepers can keep colonies alive, so it’s vitally important that beekeepers persistently maintain their bees and stay up-to-date on the latest treatment efforts. Unfortunately, there are many cases where CCD still occurs, despite the beekeeper’s best actions for care and treatment.
There is hope! If we dedicate more time and resources to studying bees, spreading awareness, and working toward positive coexistence with bees, we can help both wild and domesticated populations. Brown and Paxton (2009) assessed the major threats to bee diversity and presented a list of strategies for actions we can take to help bees. Some examples of these strategies include the minimization of habitat loss and degradation, adding bee-friendly features to agricultural areas, increasing studies on bees to answer more questions about their decline, and promoting public education (Brown and Paxton 2009). Saving honey bees and other bee species starts with collaborating wild bee habitat restoration efforts, improving methods for keeping domesticated honey bees, reducing the use of harmful pesticides, and spreading knowledge about the importance of bees to ecosystems and our daily lives. Whether you practice beekeeping, enjoy eating food from pollinator-dependent sources, or simply love honey bees – there’s always a reason to help bees!
Check out our guide on How To Save The Bees!