April 30, 2013

Disappearing Honey Bees

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Some people think of bees as annoying pests, always looking to ruin a nice outdoors Sunday brunch. Others see them as terrifying monsters, waiting for an opportune moment to sneak up and unleash a painful sting.

More realistically, however, bees are a crucial component of environmental ecosystems. They are responsible for the pollination of flowers, especially crops, many of which would drastically decline in population if bees did not exist.

Assuming the average person’s diet consists of more than only meats and cheeses, much of the food people consume comes from crops that are cross-pollinated by honey bees.

That apple you had for lunch, the tomatoes in your dinner salad and even the coffee that got you out of bed this morning are all a result of successful cross-pollination of crops by bees.

Without bees, crop populations will decline and, as a result, become more expensive.

According to Prof. Bryan Danforth, entomology, the population of bees in North America – specifically the domesticated honey bee – has been declining since at least 1950 because of Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon where large numbers of worker bees in a hive disappear suddenly.

According to Danforth, this decline is most likely a result of a combination of diseases and pesticides.

“Honey bees are loaded with viral, fungal and bacterial diseases, as well as arthropod ectoparasites such as varroa and tracheal mites,” Danforth said. “They are moved around the country and even around the world for agricultural pollination and therefore have accumulated a large number of diseases and parasites. The heavy pathogen loads seem like the most likely source of honey bee declines.”

This theory explains the rapidly declining population of foreign domesticated honey bees, but it does not explain the decline of North American native bee species, which are also important pollinators.

“Declines are clearly occurring in several bumblebee species as well,” Danforth said. This problem, therefore, is more widespread than scientists initially thought.

Research performed in Danforth’s lab by Mia Park grad and Eleanor Blitzer, a post doctoral candidate in the Department of Entomology, demonstrated that native honey bees are effective pollinators of apples and other plants.

According to Danforth, however, there is not much information on the populations of native honey bees. It appears that native bee populations are also suffering from CCD, he said.

Boycotting almonds is one way to slow the disappearance of honey bees because the pollination of almonds requires a massive-scale movement of honey bees every year, Danforth said.

“Almonds are a totally unsustainable crop that are contributing to the declines in domesticated honey bees in North America,” Danforth said.

Additionally, Danforth suggests conserving the native honey bee population by maintaining floral and nesting resources in our gardens and farms.

So instead of agonizing over the scary bees in your garden, enjoy them while they last because without them, you may have to pay a lot more for the crops that fill your plates.

Original Author: Amit Blumfield