A Bee Role That Matters
Jun 18, 2015
Starting in 2006, U.S. beekeepers began to notice that the adult honey bees which normally populated their commercial colonies were disappearing at unprecedented rates. Some colonies suffered up to 90 percent losses, with no dead bee bodies around that could be studied to determine the source of the problem. Though the problem was detected first in North America, similar increases in bee mortality have also occurred in Europe. Ever since that discovery, scientific and agricultural agencies around the world have tried to unlock this mystery.
Why does this problem, now known as colony collapse disorder (CCD), merit so much attention? The average American is conscious of bees only as something that they try to avoid, for fear of being stung. Even among the majority of U.S. farmers, who raise primarily livestock or row crops, CCD is not a direct concern.
However, for the roughly 145,000 American farmers who make their livings primarily from specialty crops (raising a variety of fruits, nuts, vegetables, or nursery crops), the nearly decade-long battle with CCD is crucial, because they rely on flying species such as bees, butterflies, birds, and bats to spread pollen around their fields. Because of the geographic concentration of such crops in California and other regions with mild climates and access to water, most farmers growing crops that do not self-pollinate purchase the services of commercial pollinators. The U.S. almond crop, produced on trees on about 950,000 acres (mostly in California), accounts for about half of the demand for commercial pollination.
These services were popularized in the 1950’s when beekeepers began to make available portable colonies of bee species that could be shipped around the country on the backs of trucks during the growing season. Most of those colonies consist of honey bees (which came to North America with the early settlers in the 17th century), because many of the native pollinator species in North America are solitary bees such as the leaf cutter and bumble bee species, and do not fare well in colony settings.
Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that the portion of U.S. agriculture which relies on commercial pollination accounts for about $15 billion in annual market receipts. A 2014 study by USDA’s Economic Research Service found that per hive rental fees have soared over the period characterized by declining honey bee populations, by 176 percent in Oregon between 2000 and 2011, and by 107 percent for almond pollination in California between 2005 and 2009.
Since 2007, scientists at EPA, USDA research agencies and U.S. universities, as well as their counterparts in Europe and Australia, have devoted significant attention to try to determine the cause of CCD, and how to overcome it. A few studies attribute CCD losses almost entirely to the expanded use of a certain class of pesticides, called neonicotinoids (or neonics) since the 1990’s by farmers. However, most scientists studying CCD believe it to be the result of a combination of factors, including the use of neonics, but also from incursions into colonies of a pest called a varroa mite, the loss of appropriate habitat for pollinators (both colonized and wild) to live off of, and stress experienced by honeybees due to their colony’s cross-country travels during the course of a year.
In 2013, the European Union responded to the CCD crisis by banning use of neonic pesticides by farmers. The ban went into effect in 2014--it is too early to determine if it is reducing bee mortality rates in EU countries, but it is having an impact on farmers, who are experiencing greater crop losses and/or having to use older, less effective classes of pesticides. Skeptics of the EU decision point to the experiences of Australia, whose farmers use neonic pesticides without restrictions, but Australian honey bee colonies have never faced problems with CCD.
Some U.S. environmental groups have urged the Obama administration to follow the EU’s example with a ban on neonic pesticide use in U.S. agriculture, but they have chosen to pursue other remedies for now. In 2014, the President established a federal inter-agency Pollinator Task Force, and in April 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would halt approvals of new uses of neonic pesticides until more studies on their impact on bee health are completed. In addition, the Administration announced in May 2015 that it will take steps to improve the habitat for pollinator species on 7 million acres, on both federal and privately owned land.
It has taken nearly a decade for the governments of countries afflicted by CCD to begin to take concrete action to combat the problem, and it will take some time to determine if any of these steps provide relief to beekeepers and the farmers they assist. In the meantime, if you see a bee or butterfly, be nice to it--we need them to spread all the pollen they can carry.