Bees have been dying at alarming rates for a decade. That makes it more expensive to produce the many crops that depend on them for pollination. Dismay over their demise transcends economics: People have cherished bees since antiquity, celebrating them in poetry, song and religious texts. Their recent woes have been blamed on various culprits, including parasites, disease and poor nutrition — all of which defy easy solution. A fourth factor, chemicals, is controversially but increasingly fingered too, leading some countries to ban pesticides called neonicotinoids.
While winter has always been hard on bees, U.S. beekeepers since 2006-2007 have reported losing an average of 30 percent of their bees to death or disappearance during the coldest season. Earlier surveys don’t exist, but beekeepers estimate that the previous rate was 15 percent, which was considered normal. Winter losses have been similarly elevated in Russia and even higher in Sweden and Germany. Abnormally high death rates require beekeepers to rapidly rebuild their colonies and charge farmers more to rent bees. In 15 years, the fee California almond growers paid per hive tripled to $150, with bee losses causing about half the increase. Wild bees are also under stress; nine percent of bee species in Europe are threatened, while the U.S. has listed eight species as endangered since late 2016. Recent studies have shown that when tested at the levels farmers use, neonicotinoids increase deaths of bees in the wild. As for the effect on colonies managed by beekeepers, studies have drawn conflicting conclusions. The European Union in 2013 issued a moratorium on the use of three neonicotinoids on flowering crops and is studying the effects of the ban. Agencies in Canada and the U.S. have also proposed restrictions on the pesticide.
A beehive is an image of community in Shakespearean texts. The Book of Mormon cites honeybees as a symbol of hard work. The Koran extols them for making honey. Farmers growing crops from apples to zucchini have long relied on wild pollinators — including various bee species, birds and bats — to fertilize plants and increase yields. Modern growers tending larger and larger farms have come to lean on beekeeper-managed honeybees for about half the burden of crop pollination. Pollination by animals is directly responsible for between five and eight percent of agricultural production worldwide, or as much as $577 billion worth of crops, by one estimate. After beekeepers in the U.S. began reporting high losses in 2006, the term “colony collapse disorder” was created to describe a hive’s abandonment by its adult bees. Today the phenomenon accounts for a minority of bee losses. A scientific consensus has emerged that various threats have combined to make bee life more stressful. These include parasitic Varroa mites, which have developed resistance to the chemicals used to kill them; bee viruses; and inadequate nourishment. The use of weedkillers on farms, forests and along highways has reduced forage available for bees. Monocropping, growing just one plant over a large area year after year, may deprive them of a diverse diet, with studies showing that exposure to greater varieties of pollen helps bees better fight off parasites.
The debate about the bees is a proxy battle over the future of agriculture. Supporters of contemporary farming practices see bee deaths as an added cost of food production. They note that while higher death rates for bees have increased costs to beekeepers and the farmers who hire them, they haven’t significantly affected harvests or food prices. This group supports efforts to improve bee health but opposes pesticide restrictions. They cite studies that show the EU moratorium on neonicotinoids has reduced crop yields — depressing oilseed rape production 4 percent on average. The ban has also prompted farmers to boost the use of other forms of insecticides, increasing their costs. And the most conclusive evidence about neonicotinoids — that it harms wild bees — is largely irrelevant to agriculture because the species that visit crops are rarely the threatened ones. Critics of industrial models of agriculture see bee deaths as a sign of fundamental flaws in the food system. They support crop rotation, reduced chemical use and land-management practices such as letting marginal lands lie fallow and thus grow weeds for bees to feed on. They argue that these measures are necessary to return ecosystems, including bee colonies, to health and are often advocates of organic farming.
The Reference Shelf
- The United Nations-administered Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services assessed the connection between pollinators and food production.
- Entomologist and beekeeper Randy Oliver explores the issues on his blog, Scientific Beekeeping.
- The website for the nonprofit Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation has useful information.
- A White House-appointed inter-agency task force released its strategy to improve pollinator health in May 2015.
- The U.S. National Stakeholders Conference on Honey Bee Health issued a 2012 report.
First published May 21, 2015
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