Tuesday, April 24, 2012

This could Bee a problem...

2012 Lamborghini Aventador: insideline.com
 In an overpopulated world of close to 7 billion people, we consume much more than would naturally be produced on earth without the help of pollinators as an ecosystem service. A necessity for the abundant amount of food produced can be attributed to the honeybee alone. In the past few decades, honeybees have been the victims of a tragic population decrease. The survival of flowering plants, which includes most fruits, vegetables and nuts, has been dependent on honeybees as their main source of pollination for the past 100 million years, nature’s oldest mutualistic relationship. Honeybees pollinate 1/3 of everything we eat in America valued at 15 billion dollars every year in the U.S. food industry. That is enough money to buy every student at the University of Oregon, 2 brand new 2012 Lamborghinis. 

Without them, our staple foods would greatly consist of rice, wheat and corn. For a balanced and healthy diet, fruits, vegetables and nuts are essential. 60%-80% of wild plants require animal pollinators, whereas 35% of crops are dependant on animal pollinators, a large portion of our diet. In Europe, crops requiring animal pollination account for over 84%.

 For this reason, they are still the most important commercial pollinator worldwide and our diet would suffer dramatically with them out of the picture. The drastic number of bees disappearing in the past few decades has been given the name Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Since the honeybees have such a huge impact on our daily lives, it is important to figure out what is causing the crisis around the world to one of the most highly organized and complex societies in the animal kingdom and find a way to reverse or stop the affects. While CCD is thought by many to be a direct result of a single parasite migrating from colony to colony, others believe CCD is a result of a variety of problems in the honeybee colonies creating what is called a “perfect storm” between toxic pesticides, parasites, mal nutrition and possibly an AIDs like virus or any combination thereof.

800,000 of the 2.6 million honeybee colonies have disappeared in the U.S. In some countries, 80% of honeybees have vanished in a 6-month time frame whereas the U.S. has lost 1/3 hives of all honeybees. A few hypotheses for this epidemic is toxic pesticides, parasites, mal nutrition and an AIDs-like virus, though no common environmental agents or chemicals have been isolated relating the affected colonies. The spreading disease, first identified in mid-November, 2006, is only affecting the adult population; adult honeybees are declining while a healthy brood population remains.

Schweiger et al. (2010) suggests that climate change is having a negative effect on the plant-pollinator relationship with warming weather. This shift into warmer temperatures may cause the plants and honeybees to un-synchronize and become vulnerable. Bees rely on flowers, and flowers on bees, if one of these two items adapts to change leaving the other behind, both parties suffer. It is hypothesized that the warming climate is causing shifts in when flowers bloom, thus changing the pollen intake of honeybees and in turn altering their breeding patterns. It may also have an affect of flight times may initiate earlier or last longer. This change in temperature may also alter distribution and range of plants, possibly further away from honeybee hives. All of theses reasons are likely scenarios, but near impossible to test because of all the factors involved.

While most research points to IAPV (Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus) as the most likely cause of CCD, US Department of Agriculture’s researcher Jeffery Pettis has found numerous colonies of healthy bees with reported IAPV infection contributing to the CCD debate for the cause of CCD.

Currently, the most accepted reason for CCD is a combination of factors. Pesticides are being used at startling amounts, parasites are always co-evolving with honeybees creating an arms race, and mal nutrition is evident in the majority of hives. A queen bee, a slave to her job trying to keep up the decreasing number of adults, lays close to 2,500 eggs a day, about 2 million a lifetime. An average honeybee can become a forager after only 3 weeks to account for their short lifespan. Out of a typical 30,000-bee hive, about 100 are male and in the summer, workers live about 30 days.

This mystery of CCD is not only important to both the human race and the survival of ecosystems and food webs throughout the entire world, but also in an economic standpoint. This is because currently, there is no artificial substitution for pollinators. A hive of bees can pollinate 3 million flowers every day whereas a human can hand pollinate less than 30 small trees in a 24-hour period. An example of the role honeybees play in pollination can be found in many parts of China, where in the 1980’s, the excessive use of pesticides wiped out all bees in many areas of China forcing villagers to pollinate their fruits by hand as a substitute to the absent bees. They have to hand collect pollen from the flowers, let it dry and germinate for two days, and then hand pollinate the plants using a stick of bamboo and chicken feathers lightly brushing pollen on every flower individually. If the United States were to lose all honeybee sources, it would cost $90 billion every year to replace bees with humans and pollinate by hand.

Pollinating trees manually in China due to lack of bees
Provided by guardian.co.uk

The U.S. is losing millions of dollars a year to corporations around the world for the rental of bees, mainly Australia. A handful of commercial beekeepers in the U.S. rent out their bees for pollination purposes such as David Hackenberg, a beekeeper who sends pods of honeybees across the country from Maine to California to pollinate almonds and blueberries, but in many cases, the U.S. resorts to renting freights of bees from Australia to keep their agriculture farms producing a healthy, profitable amount of product. A single pod, or hive, of bees is generally rented for pollination at $90 per day with increasing prices each year on account of higher demand. In the United States, beekeepers are facing bankruptcy from vanishing bees, and farms are not producing food.

What can we do to slow down the staggering disappearance of honey bees? At this point, no conclusive evidence has been found for Colony Collapse Disorder, but attempts in cracking this riddle are far from forgotten with teams of scientists working out solutions all over the world. This problem is not endemic to one specific location, but essential worldwide and can cause a crisis greater and more immediate that global warming if a solution is not found soon. Every effort to isolate the problem and implement recovery programs in favor of the honey bee is crucial for ecosystems and nutritional needs everywhere as well as a stable economy.

For more information about the ecosystem services provided by honey bees and for a more in depth look into the problems facing honey bee decline, I recommend watching the movie "Vanishing of the Bees" (available to Netflix subscribers). I have provided the trail for a quick summary.


Gallai N., J. Salles, J. Settele, B.E. Vaissière. (2008). Economic Valuation of the Vulnerability of World Agriculture Confronted with Pollinator Decline. Ecological Economics, 68:810-821.

Genersch, E. (2010). Honey bee pathology: current threats to honey bees and beekeeping. Applied Microbiology Biotechnol, 87:87-97.

Kearns C.A., D.W. Inouye, N.M. Waser. (1998). Endangered Mutualisms: The Conservation of Plant-Pollinator Interactions. Annual Reviews Ecology, 29: 83-112.

Potts S.G., J.C. Biesmeijer, C. Kremen , P. Neumann, O. Schweiger, W.E. Kunin. (2010). Global Pollinator Declines: Trends, Impacts and Drivers. Trends in Ecology and Evolution, 25(6).

Schweiger O, J.C. Biesmeijer, R. Bommarco, T. Hickler, P.E. Hume, S. Klotz, I. Kühn, M. Moora, A. Nielsen, R. Ohlemüller, T. Petanidou, S.G. Potts, P. Pysek, J.C. Stout, M.T. Sykes, T. Tscheulin, M. Vilà, G.R. Walther, C. Westphal, M. Winter, M. Zobel and J. Settele. (2010). Multiple Stressors on Biotic Interaction: How Climate Change and Alien Species Interact to Affect Pollination. Biological Reviews, 85: 777-795.

VanEngelsdorp D., J.D. Evans, C. Saegerman, C. Mullin, E. Haubruge, B.K. Nguyen, M. Frazier, D. Cox-Foster, Y. Chen, R. Underwood, D.R. Tarpy and J.S. Pettis.(2009) Colony Collapse Disorder:  A Descriptive Study. PLoS One, 4(8): e6481.

Watanabe, M. (2008). Colony Collapse Disorder: Many Suspects, No Smoking Gun. BioScience, 58(5).

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