Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Will the Urban Environment Stop the Honey Bee Crisis?

Figure 1 (

Figure 1 (

In our world today we continue to have a growing population. Urbanization and habitat loss are direct effects of this growth. The natural environment as we know it is diminishing before our eyes. Natural vegetation cover is being destroyed and converted to cropland or pavement, threatening biodiversity of local and endemic species. Food production is in high demand and predicted to get higher as the population gets larger. Pollination of our crops has become an important topic if we want our food production to become as efficient as possible. Our staple foods, like wheat, corn, rice, and potatoes, are not currently threatened because they are not dependent on animal pollination (Genersch, 2010). Healthy foods that are becoming more popular like fruits and vegetables depend solely on animal pollination to produce a crop. Honeybees make up a majority of these important pollinators. In fact, 90% of commercial pollination is performed by honey bees (Genersch, 2010). Without the pollination from honeybees, the global food production would be down almost 35%. We can’t afford to neglect the role that honey bees play in the production of our favorite crops. Not to mention they also pollinate a variety of local wildflower species which contributes to the biodiversity in our ecosystems (Genersch, 2010).

                Since the winter of 2006, honeybees all over the world have been experiencing rapid colony losses and deaths. Scientists have yet to find the exact cause of this tragedy, which is known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). During the winter of 2006 and 2007 over 23% of bee operations suffered from CCD around the world. Local bee keepers lost an average of 45% of their operations (Cox-Foster et al, 2007). Since then scientists have been researching possible threats to honeybees and trying to nail down the exact cause CCD. In a study done by Cox-Foster and his associates, the biologists took samples from the hives of honeybees in 6 different locations (Florida, California, Hawaii, Pennsylvania, Australia, and China). They were looking for a link between the microbial patterns on contaminated hives very healthy hives. What they found was that each hive had the same types of microbes but the healthy hives had a different abundance of each (Cox-Foster et al, 2007). The hives that suffered from CCD had a greater abundance of one specific type of microbe. From this study we can see that the microbes that live on and around bees may play an important role in their hive’s health. Other potential threats to honey bees include pests and pathogens. There are only two bacterial pathogens that are known to infect honey bees and both of them only affect the honey bees in their larvae stage (Genersch, 2010). Adult bees are not affected.

                Food production is a necessity and honeybees are an important part of this process that we can’t afford to lose. A possible solution to this honey bee crisis is harboring hives in the city. In a study done by Baum and his colleagues, they found that the presence and abundance of cavities and food sources in urban environments can help honey bees live better than in their natural desert areas. The only problem is that their close proximity with humans can create a concern for public health and safety. Little do people know, honey bees are very nonviolent and they only care about nectar, water, and their queen. If you stay away from them, they will stay away from you. In fact, honey bees don’t want to sting you because when they lose their stinger they will die. In urban environments there may be a more continuous supply of nectar, pollen, and water than in the surrounding natural areas, so honey bees can potentially thrive in cities if people will let them (Baum et al, 2008). Only on rare occasions do species prefer urban environments over natural areas but in some cases it does happen.

Figure 2 (

The European starling and the mosquito are just some examples (Baum et al, 2008).  Noah Wilson-Rich did a TED talk about incorporating honeybees into urban environments and his studies showed that winter survival rates for local city hives were 62% as compared to rural hives that only had 40% survive. He also showed that honey production in urban areas was greater than in the surrounding rural areas (Wilson-Rich, 2013). Some of his reasonings were that the city could be harboring more pollen in a confined area and that there may be fewer pesticides than in neighboring agricultural areas.   Overall, honeybees seem to be very happy in urban environments. All of their basic needs are met and some of them are even in abundance. Honeybees also help the local people by providing pollination for their gardens and flowers.

                Some potential problems with honeybees in the city include legal issues, health issues and honey production issues. When honeybees reproduce, part of the colony breaks off and takes a new queen to a temporary location and the workers swarm around her (Baum et al, 2008). During this time some of the workers look for a new hive in a more permanent location. While a hive is swarming they may take refuge on a tree branch or anything not too far from the original hive box. If a swarm occurs in an area that is not safe for pedestrians to walk by, then it would be a potential threat to their safety. Another potential issue is local industry runoff. A local bee keeper in Brooklyn found what looked like red cough syrup instead of honey coming from her roof top bee hives, as seen in Figure 3, (Dominus, 2010). Researchers discovered that the bees were somehow drinking the sweet sticky cherry juice from Maraschino Cherries Company.

Figure 3 (Dominus, 2010)
Samples were taken from the bees red honey substance and they found Red Dye No. 40, the same dye used in maraschino’s cherry juice (Dominus, 2010). There is no evidence of health effects on the bees thus far, but thinking about the long term, honeybees that continuously drinking extra sweet cherry juice might have serious affects. Another problem with urban honeybees is making beekeeping legal. New York City is among the few jurisdictions in the country that deem bee keeping illegal (Navarro, 2010). Honeybees are one of the animals that they consider to be too dangerous or venomous for city life. The department of health in the city is currently taking up the issue of amending the health code to allow residents to keep bee hives in the city (Navarro, 2010). Studies show that bee stings in the city have gone down enough that honeybees no longer pose a threat to public health (Navarro, 2010).

                If people in the city can overcome their fear of honey bees and if local media can help educate the public then I think urban honey bees can be a huge success. Bee keepers even say that beekeeping is relatively low-maintenance and inexpensive (Navarro, 2010). With the huge honeybee crisis going on currently and the threat that is holds over the world’s food production, urban environments may hold the key to honeybee success in the future.

Figure 4 (
Studies have shown that honeybees do very well in cities and that when left alone they are not aggressive towards humans, as seen in Figure 4.  People should give honeybees a chance because I think urbanization could actually increase the success rate of honeybee populations and help our local crops. Not only that, but by trying to save the honeybees we could be saving the future biodiversity of many different plants and crops.



Baum, Kristen et al. 2008. Africanized honey bees in urban environments: A spatio-temporal analysis. Landscape and Urban Planning. 85 (123-132).

Cox-Foster, Diana et al. 2007. A Metagenomic Survery of Microbes in Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder. Science. 318 (283-286).

Dominus, Susan. 2010. The Mystery of the Red Bees of Red Hook. New York Times.

Genersch, Elke. 2010. Honey bee pathology: current threats to honey bees and beekeeping. Appl Microbiol Biotechnol. 87 (87-97).

Navarro, Mireya. 2010. Bees in the City? New York May Let the Hives Come Out of Hiding. New York Times.

Wilson-Rich, Noah. 2012. Every City Needs Healthy Bees. TED.