Buzzwords: What We Know About The Perilous State of Modern Bees
They’re natures pollinators; highly efficient insects relied upon for much of the world’s native plant life and food supply. Their diverse adaptive and behavioral characteristics have dazzled scientists and enthusiasts for years. But, as of late, these crucial insects have been in trouble.
How bad are the losses?
In 2019, the rusty patched bumble bee, once common species, found across 28 U.S. states, made the national endangered species list. Populations declined by 87 percent in the last 20 years, with the species likely to be present in only 0.1% of its historical range. Just this month, California accepted a petition to list four native species of bumblebee under their Endangered Species Act, following urgent petitions signed by food safety and conversation groups. Honey bee surveys commissioned by the USDA, and led by both the University of Maryland and research scientist Dennis Vanengelsdorp of the Bee Informed Partnership, got the world’s attention by estimating managed honey bee loses at a staggering 30 percent from 2012-2013. Preliminary 2017 to 2018. Bee Informed survey results for average honey bee colony losses were 40 percent. Bees, like other invertebrates, have seen a dramatic decline in population within recent decades. Researched published in a 2014 issue of the journal, Science concluded in the last 35 years, invertebrates, such as beetles and bees had decreased by 45 percent. This creates direct implications for insectivorous birds, frogs and lizards.
Based off severity of losses and their unmatched contributions to global food security, stabilizing bee populations is an ecological priority. So, what’s causing these declines? We’ve laid out the facts and culprits one by one, as well as the initiatives taking place right now to help you save the bees.
Buzz Word One:
A monoculture is the cultivation of one specific type of crop, as utilized by the majority within the commercial agricultural community. Monocultures are usually associated with images of identical corn or wheat over vast fields, automated watering and industrial chemical sprays. Objectively though, a monoculture means using a plot of land for one type of crop only, often for many consecutive harvests. Massive monocultures of wind (not bee) pollinated crops like wheat or corn have eliminated once abundant, weeds and wildflowers, causing sources of nectar to declined dramatically within the last 100 years. Consequently, many native pollinators throughout the U.S. today grow hungry foraging longer and farther in search of food.
Monoculture methods fostering identical plants at a given root depth impact on the soil by limiting nutrient quality. The same nutrients for chosen commodity crops are required many times over without any crop rotation to replenish the soil. Such demands work counter to organic, common sense methods in permaculture by eliminating biological diversity. Biological systems often already have in place a natural sort of checks and balances system, whereby various insects, legumes, bacteria, cover plants, reptiles or birds contribute to the process in harmony. No one species exceeds in population or impedes on the contributions of the other. Common sense farming is typically regenerative, with multiple crops in a field harvested intermittently, nitrogen fixing practices and plots lying in fallow. and soil In monocultures, acres of identical crops attract pests on already nutrient-depleted soil, whereby synthetic chemicals like herbicides, pesticides, genetically modified, herbicide-resistant seeds and fertilizers all come into play.
Buzz Word Two:
Neonicotinoids, also known as “neonics” are systemic pesticides, structurally similar to nicotine. These chemicals first appealed to the agricultural industry in the early 2000s, as the less dangerous option for vertebrates, following bans on DDT. Neonics are sprayed directly onto the leaves of crops like apples, cherries and pears to target pests like aphids. They are called systemic treatments because, in a perceived advancement of agriculture, farmers began coating the agent into crop seeds, like oil seed rape or sunflowers, to limit the need to contact spray repeatedly. The agent is thus spread during uptake throughout plant tissue, from the leaves to the stem, within both the nectar and pollen. Bees are efficient extractors of pollen and nectar for their dietary needs, and ingest the highly toxic pesticide when foraging.
Neonicotinoids are the most widely used pesticide in the world, and are soluble in water. These potent insecticides are not only offered in industrial agriculture but for residential home gardens and lawn care, too. Urban and rural use has spread neonics, by runoff from impervious surfaces and water bodies near treated sites, causing serious non-target exposure. In other words, the initial pests meant to die from contamination are not the only species affected. Beyond the target pests and bees, aquatic invertebrates are threatened. A 2017 study published in Nature by researchers at the University of Saskatchewan found that the equivalent of just four treated canola seeds, are enough to cause migrating songbirds to lose their sense of direction and experience severe decreases in body mass.
Much speculation is being made about the impact non-target pesticide exposure is playing in the alarming disappearance of insects. The implications are serious. In soil, the half-life of Neonicotinoids, (whereby concentrations decrease by one half) is about 1000 days, or almost 3 years.
How exactly do they harm bees?
Neonicotinoids have been found to impact bees at all levels, from individual cells to entire colonies. Bees are especially vulnerable because they have a greater number of receptors than most insects. They are nerve toxins which wreak havoc on the central nervous system. In scientific terms, they bind to nicotinic acetylcholine, impeding synaptic transmission of neurotransmitters. The effects for bees include disorientation, impaired locomotion, learning, and memory, reduced food intake, fecundity issues and decreased immunity.
The majority of independent scientific literature affirms that these pesticides do inflict harm. Early data from the 2000s suggested toxicity from exposure to pesticides in bumblebees is generally similar to honey bees. Perhaps the most definitive science comes from the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, comprised of top conservation scientists from around the world, led by the IUCN. Hailed as the world’s most comprehensive scientific review of ecological impacts, synthesized more than 500 studies from 2014, concluded that extensive and routine application of neonics in agriculture is causing large-scale environmental contamination, impacts on pollinators and other insects and a significant threat to biodiversity overall.
In several instances of laboratory research, neonicotinoids impaired learning, memory and foraging behavior of bees. One published flight-study, which dosed the common eastern bumblebee with imidacloprid, noted that those who didn’t land on flowers following high dosage, “were often seen to fly or run around flowers for 5–10 minutes, followed by crawling into a corner of the arena and remaining motionless”. Bees with sensory impairments adopt disrupted flight patterns, leading workers to disappear from the hive. In an experiment where honey bees were dosed with thiamethoxam and released them 1 km away from their nests, return rates of dosed bees were significantly less than those of control bees. In some cases, impacts on the central nervous system lead to paralysis, and in many cases, immunity is impacted, making bees more susceptible to death from parasites, like Varra Destructor or diseases, like Nosema.
Nitro-containing neonics like Imidacloprid have been proven to impair bumblebee pollen foraging efficiency and colony impairment, while thiamethoxam causes bees to learn more slowly by impairing short-term memory, effectively diminishing their crop pollination ability. A unique study in Ontario also found that neonicotinoid residues in soil pose a high risk to nesting bees, like the female hoary squash bee, as they construct their nests in Cucurbita-crop growing systems. Early evidence further indicates that honeybees and bumblebees are unable to taste three major neonicotinoids (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam) through their proboscis, and that species like the honeybee and buffed-tailed bumblebee prefer to forage on crops treated with IMD or TMX, although these neonics cause them to eat less food overall.
Is this the same as Colony Collapse Disorder?
No. Colony Collapse Disorder is only one specific phenomenon within bee colonies, marked by the sudden, dramatic disappearance of worker bees, leaving only queens, some nurses and a full brood. While considerable bee losses are continuing across the globe, CCD cases seem to be tapering off.
Many within the scientific community agree that more studies are needed to research neonics’ potential role Colony Collapse Disorder. The EPA website is quick to assert that Colony Collapse Disorder is not caused by acute pesticide poisoning alone, since, With CCD, almost no dead bees are found near the hive. Piles of dead bees are, “an indication that the incident is not colony collapse disorder”. Some counter that worker honey bees travel several miles for food in a given day, and that disoriented workers exposed to neonicotinoids may die off away from the hive. Nevertheless, in light of proven nerve toxicity, weakened immunity systems and reduced reproductive rates for all types of bees, the effects of this insecticide are considerable, even if biologists don’t have definitive answers regarding a relationship to CCD.
Buzz word Three:
Pollination Service Industry
In industrial agricultural practices, modern bees are boxed and shipped to provide pollinator services across the U.S. A honey bee may be raised in Michigan, before they’re taken to Florida to pollinate citrus in the Winter, and later transported to California that Spring to pollinate almond trees. Recent studies published in the Journal of Apicultural Research have noted transportation of bees and demanding pollination service leads to increased infection rates of the fatal parasite Nosema ceranae in worker honey bees. It’s easy to imagine how stressed bees congregating in one location might increase the spread of disease.
Utilizing these services from non-native honey bees also displaces native pollinators like bumblebees, mining bees, carpenter or squash bees from foraging. There are more than 4000 native species of bees across the U.S. All bees need specific nutrients in shifting proportions according to the season and hive specific needs. Nutrient deficiency can play a massive role in both shipped honey bees and local pollinators alike. Without the proper diet, bees cannot fight off infections or parasites or exposure to insecticides. Research has found that bees that pollinate on a wider variety of plants have a stronger immune system. The nutritional implications of industrial in-service pollination for bees were perhaps best exemplified by Ecologist at the University of Leeds, Bill Kunin in an article written by Stephanie Pain last year for Knowledge, a popular British science magazine. Bill explains that although apple orchards produce plenty of pollen and nectar the pollen is, “nutritionally very one-sided”, and that, “Of the ten essential amino acids insects need, two are present in huge amounts, one in an OK amount and seven are terrible” (2018). Ultimately, he concludes that it would not be possible for a bee to raise a brood on apple pollen alone.
To recap; honey bees are fed a nutrient-poor diet and transported with millions of other bees across the county. With compromised immunity from dietary deficiency, they’re more susceptible to infectious parasites, and this is all before acute exposure to insect killing nerve toxins. Native pollinators, on the other hand have lost their source of food (native flowers), been displaced by honey bee agriculture and exposed to toxic insecticides through non-target contamination.
What’s beeing done?
In the European Union, three neonicotinoids—clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam, have been banned on flowering crops since 2013 for their adverse effect on pollinators. And just last year, the European Commission voted in favor of extending the ban to all field crops pending scientific review by the European Food Safety Authority on the impacts to both domestic honey bees and wild pollinators.
But don’t write off the U.S. yet. Right now, in the House of Representatives, The Save American Pollinators Act, HR 1337 is stuck in Subcommittee. Versions of the bill have existed since 2013, but the reintroduced initiative would simply require the EPA to create a Pollinator Protection Board, with an independent review process on pesticides, whereby insecticides like neonicotinoids must be deemed safe before continued. This adoption of the precautionary principle will give time to research to clear up biologically costly mistakes, while allowing for risk testing for each compound and target species.
Suggestions for Big Agriculture
1. Meadows can supplement farms
The shipping of non-native honey bees for serviced pollination comes with a large transportation footprint, and an even larger ecological barrier for struggling bee populations. One simple solution with high returns is to plant meadows adjacent to key crops within commercial farms. For example, studies on blueberry farming have concluded that, “provision of forage habitat for bees adjacent to pollinator‐dependent crops” can lead to higher yields while conserving wild pollinators in otherwise, “resource‐poor agricultural landscapes”. Sweeping corporate initiatives to plant meadows among monoculture farms for natives’ bees could partially alleviate swift declines from loss of nutrients and loss of habitat.
2. It pays to use cover crops
Cover crops are plants like clovers or alfalfa, that grow before and after the commoditized crop to add nutrients to the soil. They provide natural buffers against floods, droughts, erosion, compaction, pests and more. They often attract pollinators and have been shown to increase crop yields on existing monocultures. During the fall of 2012, farmer surveys from the Conservation Technology Information Center throughout the mid-west region demonstrated how corn planted after cover crops had a, 9.6% increase in yield compared to control fields without them. Soybean yields were also improved by 11.6% following cover crops. In the hardest hit drought areas of the Corn Belt, the survey found cover crops were even more effective compared to non-cover crops, where yield differences totaled 11 % for corn and 14.3% for soybean, respectively.
3. Local, seasonal, organic
Consumers who choose organic crops offer great hope for dying bees, in an otherwise unstable market. Buying local, seasonal and organic decreases the strain on the global food industry to produce and ship chemically dependent products. One successful paradigm, growing across the U.S., is Community Supported Agriculture.
Buzz Word Four:
Community Supported Agriculture
Think small Ag
The eat local movement at the forefront of ecological responsibility has found its footing in an alternative farming movement called community supported agriculture (CSA). The premise rests upon local consumers providing an initial investment in a nearby farm, say $400, in exchange for a size-specific, weekly assortment of harvested crops. Let’s say a couple in the northeast buys a moderately sized basket plan for $400 to last them from May until November. In a sense, the couple shares the uncertainty by investing up front, but likewise has a stake in receiving seasonal, fresh organic produce. Moreover, the family is rewarded with a practical agricultural experience. Shareholders are invited to visit farm gatherings at least once per season in order to witness firsthand how their food was grown. Social scientists have coined the phrase, enchanting ethical consumerism to describe CSAs, because they offer something new in otherwise convenience-oriented, intensive global food systems. The farmer is also rewarded in this model. Beyond the cash flow, farmers are provided with a much-needed sense of freedom from the pressures associated with delocalized markets. There is an implicit understanding that options are seasonal and shares are finite, which allows the farmer to utilize more organic agricultural methods to feed the community. Without unyielding demand for a single unblemished crop, the farmer can return to a permaculture style of farming, fostering diverse yields specific to the consumer’s ecoregion, without the use of heavy pesticides, herbicides or forced pollination services.
To find CSAs near you, visit
Credit Jeffery Mathison
Your Front Lawn
When it comes to monocultures, few think about the largest monoculture- the front lawn. A mid 2000s U.S. News and World report, asserted that with several million acres of front lawns, turf grass is America’s largest irrigated crop. Therefore, solving the issue of monocultures extends to homeowners looking to rekindle their relationship with nature. Utilizing a front lawn for flowering trees and organic wildflower landscaping doesn’t just send an esthetically pleasing message, it attracts bees, butterflies and songbirds to the home. To convert a lawn, the first step is to stop mowing, except for a pathway or two. Then, one can embark on identifying the plant species growing within their lawn. In order to eliminate invasive species organically, it’s best to try boiling water or an organic vinegar solution. Then, to plant diverse natives of your choice with patience. Several states have volunteers from extensive master gardener programs that can identify tough species diagnose pesky garden issues. Most master gardeners consider synthetic approaches a last resort. In time, pollinators could make a true recovery with the native front lawn method.
Like many environmental issues facing society this century, the decline of bee populations comes from a multitude of societal decisions, posing unintended ecological consequences. At every level, practical citizens are working to expedite solutions, which range from the Save America’s Pollinators Act, to redesigning farms to reclaiming their own front lawns with organic methods. None of these options are too small to bring the bees back from perilous decline. Our collective efforts add up to a massive amount of influence, capable of preserving key biological systems throughout the world.
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