Sunday, March 11, 2012

Could we Experience a Food Shortage? Apis mellifera, Colony Collapse Disorder, and What it’s Doing to Our Food Supply

What would you eat if there were no more almonds? What about no more blueberries? Well you could probably survive without those two foods, but now also take out sunflower seeds, pumpkins, cherries, cucumbers, apples, plums, apricots, nectarines, peaches, peas, macadamia nuts, pears, strawberries, mandarins, oranges, mangos, lemons, limes, avocadoes, watermelon, and zucchinis. Suddenly a well-balanced diet is a hard thing to achieve. The food pyramid or current “Choose My Plate” campaign (Image at right from the US Department of Agriculture ( are missing huge components that we have been told our entire lives are so important. Many key nutrients, like vitamins and minerals that are important to healthy living are no longer available through the foods we’re consuming.

You’re probably thinking, “Well yeah, that would be bad, but it’s not going to happen. We’re not going to lose a large portion of our fruits and vegetables and nuts. Are we?” The unfortunate reality is that it could happen. No, it’s not a terrorist attack on our food supplies and it’s not anything that we could have anticipated that will be systematically taking out all these foods, one at a time. But what do these foods have in common? One thing. All of these are predominantly pollinated by the honey bee, Apis mellifera. Since the winter of 2006/2007 Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has been a phenomenon occurring in honey bee populations across the United States (Grunewald 2010; Shultz 2007). The most baffling thing about this is that there are no bee carcasses to be found and studied. When a bee is sick or knows that it is dying, it will leave the hive so as not to potentially hurt any other bees. This leaves scientists to study hives that are in the process of collapsing, where bee keepers are seeing a decline in their population size (Shultz 2007).

For those of you who don’t like fruits or vegetables and don’t see their loss as a concern, what about the other products and foods that we regularly use and could be disappearing due to CCD; things such as alfalfa (Image at right, cotton, peanuts, rapeseed, and soybeans (Morse 2003). These field crops are also bee pollinated and at risk for great losses of we lose the honey bees.

The next logical question would then be, “What’s the cause of CCD? If we know the cause then we can stop this from happening.” The issue with this simple and straightforward solution is that there is not a single specific known cause of CCD. The issues of CCD cannot be solved with simple and straightforward. There are numerous theories, many of which have strong supporting information, but not one lone cause. The PBS show Nature did an episode in October of 2007 that helped to detail what CCD was at the time, where the phenomenon was projected to go and some of the possible causes of CCD ( One of these theories is the increased use of pesticides and more specifically insecticides. (Image at left Bees consume pollen and nectar as well as carry it to their hives as food for their young and if there are pesticides in and on the flowers where they are obtaining the pollen and nectar, they may be getting poisoned both internally and externally. The increased use of pesticides in the US and around the world may have simply hit a point where the pesticides are causing changes in honeybee behavior, ultimately leading to their death, or the pesticides themselves could be causing the honey bee deaths (Grunewald 2010; Shultz 2007). Another very common theory is that honey bees may be suffering from a virus that suppresses their immune system, causing them to be more susceptible to other potential causes. The belief is that the virus may work similarly in honey bees as HIV does in humans (Shultz 2007). A third theory that is widely popular is that CCD is caused by a mite called Varroa destructor which physically feeds on the adult honey bee and also on honey bee larva by positioning themselves in larval cells within a hive (Ellis and Zattel Nalen 2010). (Image below
For those of you who don’t like fruits or vegetables and don’t see their loss as of concern, think also about the species diversity that will be lost if we lose the honey bee. It’s not just foods that we would lose, but honey bees are also the primary pollinators of many native plants. Honey bees don’t just give us what we need to grow our food, they are providing an important and essential ecosystem service. Without the honey bee, many species of plants would not become pollinated thus, without human intervention they too would die. If we lose the pollination ecosystem service of the honey bees it would take artificially hand pollinating all our crops like many Chinese do for their pear trees since the loss of honey bees in that part of the world (Shultz 2007).

If the loss of food crops, species diversity, and the ecosystem service of pollination are not enough to convince you that we should take steps to protect the honey bee, maybe the economic impacts will. Research conducted in 2006 and published in 2007 by Cook et al. ( completed a model that showed the benefits of excluding Varroa destructor (Image at left from the continent of Australia could save that country between $16.4 and $38.8 million USD a year for each of the next 30 years (Cook et al. 2007). Even taking the most conservative number of $16.4 million USD/year, for their estimated period of 30 years, that’s a total of $492 million USD.

The ultimate question that you’re probably now asking is “With all this loss of money and species diversity, what can I do?” I believe that there are 3 key things that everyone should consider doing (with the understanding that not everyone can do them all, but we can all do something) to help the honey bees. First and foremost become knowledgeable. Read, listen, analyze, and seek out those who can answer any questions that you don’t know the answer to and don’t know where to find the answer. The second thing that you can do is to start your own colony (Image at right or bee garden. Starting a colony is not for everyone, but it is the most direct technique that a person can embrace to help the honey bees. There are many great resources online, including which has a do-it-yourself guide for beginners who are interested in starting their own bee colony ( If having your own backyard colony isn’t your idea of a pet project, a bee garden might better suit you. Bee gardens support native bee colonies by containing flowers that bloom throughout the spring, summer, and fall and can also provide a diversity that bees appreciate. The third thing that you can do is to become a honey bee advocate. Take the knowledge that you have gained and share it. Just as Dr. Seuss’ character of the Lorax spoke for the trees, you can speak for the bees. Humans need the support of other humans to make large achievements in the ecological world and most humans won’t support something that they don’t understand. If you can share the importance of the honey bees and the potentially devastating effects of CCD, we can help the greater population to know about how special these animals are to human survival and the survival of our world.

“If bees continue to disappear at the current rate, honey bee populations in the United States will cease to exist by the year 2035.” Silence of the Bees, Nature.


Cook, D. C., Thomas, M. B., Cunningham, S. A., Anderson, D. L., De Barro, P. J. (2007). Predicting the Economic Impact of an Invasive Species on an Ecosystem Service. Ecological Society of America, 17(6), 1832-1840.

Ellis, J.D. and Zettel Nalen, C. M. (2010). Varroa mite-Varroa destructor Anderson and Trueman. University of Florida. 10 March 2012. <>.

Grunewald, B. (2010). Is Pollination at Risk? Current Threats to and Conservation of Bees. GAIA, 19(1), 61-67.

Morse, R. A. and Calderone, N. W. (2003). The Value of Honey Bees As Pollinators of U.S. Crops in 2000. Pollination 2000. 4 March 2012. <>.

Shultz, D. (Writer). (28 October 2007). Silence of the Bees [Television series episode]. In D.Schultz (Producer), Nature. New York City, New York: Thirteen/WNET New York’s Kravis Multimedia Education Center.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. It's fun to read the different blogs within a group, because each writer emphasizes something slightly different such that the blogs complement each other and work well together as a whole, and this set of bee blogs does this really well.

    This piece really paints a great picture of how critical bees are to our food supply and the potential effects on our diet of bee colony collapse.

    I also appreciated the suggestions on things we could do. Planting a bee garden, or as they mentioned in the TED video just a pot of flowers, is one small thing that we could all do that may not stop bee colony collapse but it seems to be one small step toward more diversity and pollination sources. I had never considered the idea of starting a backyard colony, but that idea really intrigues me. Maybe I will. I know my parents have experimented with mason bees and that seems like an especially easy, safe, low-maintenance way to help spread pollinators.

    The issue of what is causing bee colony collapse disorder is absolutely perplexing and its hard to keep track of all of the possible culprits and each of the blogs has emphasized different culprits. In this piece, three possible culprits are named: pesticides/insecticides; a virus; the mite. Molly's post emphasized the loss of biodiversity in pollination sources as weakening bee immune system. Troy's post mentioned the more recent discovery of the parasitic fly. Am I missing anything? A systematic list of the possible culprits and an evaluation of the likelihood of the various culprits or their relative contribution (if it's a synergistic thing) would be helpful.