How much do honey bees matter to the survival and welfare of human beings?
This much: Honey bees are the number one insect pollinator on our globe, responsible for the production of more than 90 crops and the pollination of various flowers, plants, and trees.
And of course, besides their vital contribution to our lives, honey bees are also sentient beings with their own intricate and valuable lives.
Flowers That Beckon
In terms of what these insects find attractive besides crops and fruits, honey bees are particularly drawn to flowers that are blue, purple, and yellow.
This is because they can see the ultraviolet wavelengths emitted by these colors that human beings cannot detect, an ability that enables honey bees to see great ‘runway’ paths for them to land on such flowers.
Bluebells are one such species of flowers to which honey bees are attracted:
Honey Bee Populations In Grave Danger
Here’s another picture – but this is one to imagine in your head and it’s a very nasty reality to comprehend, namely this: Honey bees are currently dying not just by the hundreds, or thousands, or hundreds of thousands. Rather, they are expiring by the millions.
An ecological crisis has been developing that threatens to bring global agriculture to its knees, meaning our food supplies are in grave danger.
On the Brink of Ecological Disaster?
As pollinators of crops and fruits, thirty percent of food production around the world depends on bees.
So without bees, scientists concur that an ecological disaster would occur – a possible disaster in which we are already at the crisis stage.
The Honey Bees’ Incredible Contribution to Crops
Along with pollinating flowers, bees are essential for pollinating our crops.
For example, a recent study done by Cornell University in the USA as reported in HoneyBeeQuiet.com estimated that honey bees pollinate more than $14 billion worth of seeds and crops on an annual basis in the United States.
Impressive Work: A List of What Honey Bees Pollinate
Some crops are almost entirely dependent on the honey bee for pollination (that is, 90-100% of pollination is done by them).
Here is a list of some of the crops pollinated by the honey bee (listed here in alphabetical order):
Alfalfa, almond, alsike clover, arrowleaf clover, apple, apricot, avocado, beet, blackberry, bluebells, blueberry, boysenberry, broad bean, broccoli, brussel sprouts, buckwheat, cabbage, cactus, cantalope, carambola, caraway, carrot, cauliflower, celery, cherry, chestnut, clover (not all species), coffee, cone flowers, cotton, crimson clover, crownvetch, cucumber, eggplant, flax, grape, hazlenut, honeydew, jasmine, kiwifruit, lavendar, lima bean, lupin, lychee, macadamia, mustard, okra, onion, pear, plum, quince, rapeseed, raspberry, red clover, redwood sequoia [tree], safflower, scarlet runner bean, Southeastern blueberry, rosemary, soybean, squash (plant), strawberry, sunflower, tangelo, tangerine, thyme, tomato, turnip, vetch, violets, walnut, watermelon, white clover, wisteria.
Alarming Bee Decline Is Threatening the US Food Supply
The list above shows just how vitally pivotal honey bees are to the food supply.
Therefore, because they are disappearing in vast numbers with their populations declining in such shocking numbers, the US food supply is currently endangered.
In fact, according to the University of Maryland’s College of Chemical and Life Sciences, approximately one-third of the USA’s agricultural crops is pollinated by bees.
Colony Collapse Disorder in the USA, Europe, and Southeast Asia
How have all the honey bees disappeared?
One major threat is known as ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’ (or ‘CCD’). CCD is a phenomenon in which worker bees from a beehive or European honey bee colony suddenly disappear.
Throughout the history of apiculture ( i.e., beekeeping), there have been such disappearances.
However, CCD as a term was only first applied when there was a drastic rise in the number of disappearances of honey bee colonies in North America in 2006.
In the USA, CCD been reported in more than 35 states.
European beekeepers have observed similar phenomena in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Greece, Italy, Portugal, and Spain. Switzerland and Germany have also suffered, but at present to a lesser degree.
Possible cases of CCD have also been reported in Taiwan since April 2007.
Possible Causes of CCD
Scientists have yet to figure out the exact mechanisms that cause CCD.
However, research points to the following strong possibilities behind these catastrophic, wholesale deaths of honey bees:
- viruses (in particular, a virus known as ‘Israel Acute Paralysis Virus’ identified by Hebrew University plant virologist Prof. Ilan Sela in 2004 in which honeybees suffer from shivering wings, followed by paralysis and death outside the hive);
- beekeeping practices (including using antibiotics or transporting bees for long distances);
- electromagnetic radiation;
- pesticides,or more specificially, insecticides. And the neonicotinoids are front runners as a significant causative agent in colony collapse disorder.
Monoculture and the Honey Bees in the United Kingdom
The situation in the UK has been explained as follows in “Who Killed the Honeybee?”, an excellent BBC TV program that aired this spring:
Originally, many different types of bees pollinated flowers, including the 90 or so UK crops that are totally dependent on bee pollination.
However, crops became more susceptible to being damaged with the emergence of large-scale monoculture, the agricultural practice of producing or growing one single crop over a wide area.
Monoculture produces great yields by utilizing plants’ abilities to maximize growth under less pressure from other species and more uniform plant structure.
Honey Bees as Linchpins in Agribusiness
The ‘pro’ side for monoculture is that In a world with ever-growing population numbers, getting such higher crop yields has been vitally important for feeding those same populations.
As such, monoculture has been part of the post-World War II agribusiness.
However, the ‘con’ side of monoculture is that it also relies on chemical fertilizers and pesticides for the crops.
These foreign elements to nature at first killed not only a broad range of insects, but the honey bees as well.
However, pesticides were developed at that point that would target other insects – but leave the honey bees alone.
Truckin’ (What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been)
The result of the pesticides used this way in the monoculture environment means that the only insect available to pollinate farmers’ crops is the honey bee, upon whom they now totally depend and rely.
The central importance of the honey bees to the crops is is why pollination by honey bees is not left to chance.
In fact, beekeepers transport their bees around the country in wooden crates, often piled high in huge transport trucks. The crates are carefully opened when the work destination is reached, where the bees are set free from the hives in their crates, and put ‘to work’.
Because of the farmers’ necessity for such pollination, such transporting of bees is big business for beekeepers.
Extinction in Britain of the Short-Haired Bumblebee in 1990
According to the book published in 2006 entitled Going, Going, Gone? Animals and Plants On The Brink Of Extinction And How You Can Help by Malcolm Tait, there are 270 species of bees in Britain and during the last 50 years, 10 of the species have undergone massive declines.
The bumbebee is the best known of these bees. Tait reports in his book that the short-haired bumblebee became extinct in about 1990, and about half of the social bumblebee species are in terrible straits in Britain.
Announcements in Britain of Possible Extinction of Bees Within A Decade
Other reports in the national and local media that have appeared here in Britain in the past year or so announcing that bees are disappearing here so rapidly that they may be extinct within only 10 years.
Bee Happy: Great News About Proposed Cure for Bee Colony Collapse
Because the bees’ dire situation especially concerns us here at Quillcards, we would like to share recent encouraging news that this dismal situation can be combatted with an antibiotic.
An article in ars technica describes work done by a team of Spanish researchers who have discovered hives infested with a parasitic fungus that they have treated successfully with antibiotics. The researchers found the fungus in hives with none of the other supposed causes of bee colony collapse disorder, suggesting both a concrete cause for CCD, as well as a cure.
Intriguing Features About Our Winged Friends
To learn more about bees, please check out our article: The Bee’s Knees: Thirty Fascinating Facts About Bees.
‘Going, Going, Gone?: Animals and plants on the brink of extinction and how you can help’ by Malcolm Tait, Think Books, 2008.
The Big Issue [in the North], “Where are all the bees?”, 2-8 June 2008
The Sunday Times Magazine, “Why the bee is on its last legs”, 1 February 2009
University of Maryland College of Chemical & Life Sciences