Global Economy
July 15, 2015

Honey Bee Health is Serious Business

By Andrea Durkin

bees infograph

 

One-third of the U.S. food supply relies on pollination by the hard working honey bee — from cucumbers and citrus fruits to watermelon, kiwis, berries, cherries, and applies.

California’s almond industry, worth $2 billion annually, requires nearly 1.5 million hives to ensure a good crop.  So every February, two out of every three hives in the U.S. are shipped to California, their bee residents pressed into service of the almond bloom.

Honey bees are needed to support growing U.S. agriculture production, yet they face a serious long-term decline in population.

Experts have organized into research consortia, working groups and task forces to try to determine what is causing this decline.  They agree the factors are multiple, complex, and interacting.

Colony collapse disorder over the last few years drew widespread attention to the problem, but the decline in North American honey bees is a longer term trend.  In 1947, there were about 6 million colonies but today we are down to about 2.5 million.

Sharp declines were seen following the introduction in 1987 of an external parasitic mite, aptly named Varroa destructor, that feeds on the blood of honey bees.  Loss rates over the winter have been averaging around 31% since 2006, far exceeding the 15-17% that commercial bee keepers say is economically sustainable.
The rise of monoculture agriculture with increased reliance on pesticides and reduced use of cover crops is thought to be added stress on bee health.  The bees are struggling to maintain a varied and high-quality diet-they need protein from pollen and carbohydrates from the nectar of flowering plants.  Without adequate nutrition, they are also more vulnerable to viruses.

When bees get sick, our own nutrition is at risk along with the U.S. agriculture economy.  Honey bees are not the only pollinators supporting U.S. agriculture, but they are the most important.

According to the U.S. Pollinator Health Task Force, “honey bee pollination alone adds more than $15 billion in value to U.S. agricultural crops each year, and provides the backbone to ensuring our diets are plentiful with fruits, nuts, and vegetables.”

That is why we now have a National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.  The Strategy envisions restoration of habitats through land management, dissemination of best practices in hive management, and investments in research to better understand how to prevent colony loss.

It calls for an “all hands on deck” approach to restoring honey bee health, encouraging all of us to protect the foods we rely on for a healthy diet by supporting bees, including by planting pollinator-friendly flowers in school gardens and in our own yards.

Much more needs to be done on a large scale, but why not invite some honey bees to dinner?

For an entertaining examination of the perfect hexagons that form the cells of a honeycomb see Robert Krulwich’s article for NPR, entitled What Is It About Bees and Hexagons?