National Honey Bee Day is in August. Honey bees; an animal I usually disregard but take advantage of on a daily basis.
As a child, one of my favorite cereals was Honey Nut Cheerios. That sweet tang was just enough to get me to eat breakfast. As I’ve grown older, I’ve relied heavily upon local honey to help relieve my seasonal allergies. I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve taken this sweetener for granted. I mean, why not slather copious amounts of this sweet nectar onto my dry toast? Then, I began hearing and reading horror stories of how honey bees are on the brink of extinction and how our food supply will quickly dwindle if this is the case.
I recently had the privilege to chat with Edward Spevak, the Curator of Invertebrates at the Saint Louis Zoo, regarding honey bee health, our ecosystem, and how pollination is essential to the food we consume. Spevak has not only devoted his time to the zoological park of Saint Louis, but he is also the Director of the Center for Native Pollinator Conservation and Bumble Bee Programme Officer for the International Union for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission Bumblebee Specialist Group. Needless to say, he was the exact person I wanted to speak with about the latest “bee scare.”
In 2006, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) was identified. We still do not know the exact cause because, at the end of the day, there are a plethora of reasons why the collapse has been happening: pesticide use, loss of flower resources with habitat loss, and diseases are just some of the situations occurring. There’s a lot going on at once (United States Department of Agriculture).
Many issues stem from the bee collapse. One of the bigger problems manifesting itself is that commercial beekeepers are having a harder time providing adequate pollination services. Most crops rely on bees, but a lot of times there are not enough native bees to get the job done. So, beekeepers place honeybees in boxes and transport them wherever pollination is needed. When the number of hives a beekeeper maintain collapses then the number of crops being pollinated is severely reduced, which greatly reduces the crops we have for our consumption.
The process of bee pollination is largely instrumental in giving us nutrition. The plants that supply us with vitamins, minerals, lipids…they’re all dependent on bees. Many people don’t understand just how reliant we are on bees. To put it in perspective, 75% of our crops require pollinators. One out of every three bites we take relies on bees. We typically think that bees are pollinating flowers, but flowers are the crux to most crops that we eat: rice, oats, barley, and other grains.
We’ve made it a priority to expand our agriculture, but we’re not keeping a suitable habitat for pollinators. It’s impossible for us to survive on wind-based foods (essentially plants that receive their pollination via wind), since they will not provide us with the proper nutrition that is crucial for a balanced diet.
In addition to expanding our crop production, we’ve created a huge problem – habitat loss.
Habitat loss is a major issue that most wildlife is experiencing, but it’s not just occurring in and around our corn fields, it’s happening in our own backyards.
The current trend in suburbia is the desire for manicured lawns; the greener the better. But lawns are a biological desert. There are no wildflowers for pollination or trees to support other insects. Although the majority of people find lawns to be aesthetically pleasing, it is not sustainable for a healthy environment. The same goes for the roadsides. Commuters want roadsides to be mowed due to an aesthetic aspect, but milkweed and other wildflowers that are crucial for pollinators are being eliminated. States, such as Iowa, are developing roadsides specifically for pollinators. In fact, a presidential memorandum was released in 2015 that directs all federal departments to develop a pollinator plan since the decrease in bees can quickly affect the agriculture of our country.
It’s not just government policies that are beginning to make changes to secure the safety of the honey bees. The Saint Louis Zoo is a prime example of an organization that is not only protecting but is also raising awareness for the plight of these magnificent creatures. Their Monsanto Insectarium features honeybees and lets visitors take a peek inside a working beehive to show how these insects help pollinate our crops. Not only do they have a stunning information center but they have a meadow outside their butterfly house where a variety of bees is encouraged to pollinate in safety. Information plaques litter the Missouri Meadow so viewers can understand that there is more than one type of bee (STL Zoo).
In addition to the habitat loss, job security has been on a slow decline. Job security is firmly rooted in the access and livability of pollinators. Take, for example, almond trees. Almond trees only require pollination during the bloom period, and this is a very short time-span. Native bees are more than capable of pollinating almond trees, but there is nothing else in these regions to sustain the native bees year-round. Therefore, native bees have left these areas of California that play host to almond trees. And the same goes for blueberry plants. They have a fairly decent bloom time, but bees don’t have anywhere to be active before and after the bloom period. If you’re wanting to keep native bees around these plants, or any other seasonal plant, you’re going to need to cultivate a year long flowering garden (Beyond Toxics).
However, most agricultural producers don’t have the time or resources to create flowering gardens large enough to sustain the amount of bees that they need to pollinate their entire crop. Since native bees aren’t available for pollination, bee colonies are rented. Originally, honey bee rentals were about $30-35 per hive, but now hives are costing upwards of $200 because of the demand. Each year bees are driven in to pollinate seasonal plants so that farmers can yield a profitable crop. After pollination has occurred these bees are then shipped out to the next location. To put the gravity of the situation into perspective, about 1.7 million colonies of honey bees are placed in California almond orchards each year. That’s a frightfully large cost for pollination (Almonds).
Another economic issue that farmers are running into is that 50%, 60%, all the way to 80% of beehives have been lost by individual commercial beekeepers. You can split hives to make up for the loss, but you have to build them up. Unfortunately, this is a costly endeavor because of the efforts put in by the beekeepers and the increase in the total amount of crops that are requiring pollination services.
Aside from an economic perspective, the U.S. is finding a greater increase in obesity levels as well as people who are undernourished. Essentially, the lack of pollinators is creating a nutritional obstacle. Products that are dependent upon pollinators are going to provide long-term health benefits since we won’t have to rely so heavily on supplementary care. And if we take heed to the USDA food pyramid and follow it then it would be much healthier to rely upon crops that need pollination.
The implications from the loss of bees start off as economic and health-related. However, if we look beyond our U.S. borders, bees can create a national security issue as well. Loss of pollinators means that there may be food scarcity, which in turn can create civil unrest, propelling people to migrate to different countries. The U.S. is known for aiding countries in times of crisis, and if people are rioting over the lack of food or flooding to other borders then it is somewhat inevitable that military deployment may occur.
So far we’ve been looking at the loss of bees as a concern to a human’s well-being, but bees are crucial to other animals’ existence as well. Twenty-five percent of bird species are dependent upon fruits and nuts that require pollination as well as bears, mice, a
nd other wildlife. Additionally, many trees and other plants that create wildlife habitat, and provide other environment services require pollination as well. If this doesn’t sound the alarm for the need to protect a sustainable environment then I don’t know what will.
However, the takeaway from this discussion should not be that honey bees are the best or preferred pollinators. For instance, let’s take bumble bees. They are the only species, in the entire world, that can pollinate tomato plants. Then there are squash bees, alkali bees, and alfalfa bees, just to name a few. The native species that cover the globe is dizzying and puts the loss of one bee into perspective.
Although honeybees aren’t about to go extinct, native bees are becoming endangered through the loss of their habitat.
Bees are one of the greatest creatures you can become familiar with. As long as we have a demand for fruits and vegetables, which we will, then the importance of bees will be even more visible to the naked eye. And to put those of you at ease who are scared of getting stung, Spevak makes a great point: when a bee is on a flower all they’re thinking about is food. The only time we should be concerned about getting stung is if we’re interfering with a colony. If the bees believe that their queen is in danger then they will attack. Bees are generally a solitary animal so chances are you’ll be fine.
Finding information about bees is easier than you’d imagine. The Saint Louis Zoo isn’t the only zoo in that has a fantastic program. Go to your local zoo or nursery and just strike up a casual conversation. In the span of five minutes, you’ll learn invaluable tools on how to respect our planet and help it thrive. So next time you’re hesitant to plant flowers because you’re worried of bees now you can remember they’re not there to harm but to help.