Are Honey Bees Endangered?
Over a decade ago, bees’ imminent disappearance — publicized as “Colony Collapse Disorder” — was on every media platform. Humankind was said to be in jeopardy, and we were on the verge of a disaster. Donations flew in to “save the bees!”
Taking a step back, are honey bees endangered as proclaimed? To what extent are they impacted, and how?
Endangered Species — What Does it Mean?
An endangered species is one facing, in the wild, a high risk of extinction. Several organizations and governmental bodies provide lists of “critically endangered,” “endangered” and “vulnerable species.” The inventory delivered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (or IUCN), is the most exhaustive.
The “Red List of Threatened Species” was implemented in 1964. Today, it includes 105,700 specimens, among which 28,000 of them are at risk of extinction. Bringing attention to specific groups protects and helps them thrive.
The IUCN declares a species in peril when several factors are met. Among them is a decrease in population, territory, adult population, and a forecast that the species will go extinct within 20 years.
Are Honey Bees Endangered?
Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), is a situation when worker bees disappear in winter, leaving their queen and brood behind. In 2008, 60 percent of the total number of hives were lost and brought bees’ survival under the spotlight.
Currently, there are eight species of bee threatened with extinction:
- Hawaiian yellow faced bee (Hylaeus Kuakea, Longiceps, Mana)
- Hilaris yellow faced bee (Hylaeus Hilaris)
- Easy yellow faced bee (Hylaeus Facilis)
- Rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus Affinis)
- Anthricinan yellow faced bee (Hylaeus Anthracinus)
- Assimulans yellow faced bee (Hylaeus Assimulans)
Although honey bees aren’t listed under the endangered category, they could still be at risk. Both wild and domesticated bees suffer from sprayed chemicals, monocultures, and parasites.
A decline in population has been noticed by many environmental bodies such as Greenpeace, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the United States Environmental Protection Agency.
Although CCD has decreased since first reported in 2006, it’s still a sensitive issue. Last year, research documented a drop in honey bee colonies of 16 percent.
How Are Honey Bees Threatened?
Several factors impact the survival rate of honey bees.
In the US alone, 1 billion pounds of pesticides are used annually in agriculture cultivation. These highly toxic products are detrimental to both our health and the environment.
Insecticides are the biggest threat to honey bees. Conceived to kill a multitude of crop attacking bugs — when sprayed on agricultural fields, honey bees end up being collateral damage.
For example, neonicotinoid — a new form of insecticide — kills bees when exposed to high levels. Low levels still remain toxic and affect the bees’ central nervous system.
Neonicotinoid alters their communication and navigation — when exposed to this substance, bees forget their way back to the hive. They also become more prone to parasites and viruses. Long-term contact can result in paralysis and slow death.
Herbicides decrease plant diversity and quantity, limiting the amount and source of food available for bees.
Monoculture farming — growing one type of crop on a piece of land — has a dual impact on honey bees.
- Lowering soil quality, this type of culture can only be maintained by using pesticides and fertilizers
- Limits the diversity of food available for bees to feed on
Invasion of Parasites
Honey bees are affected by pests of their own. Parasites like the varroa mite can cause devastation within a bee colony if action isn’t taken.
These parasites are quick to settle within a colony. Similarly, like ticks, they suck blood (hemolymph) from both adults and the brood — and spread disease.
While it weakens and shortens a bees’ lifespan, the brood is also born deformed, with abnormal legs and wings. The brood won’t be able to bring food back efficiently, impacting the whole colony’s survival.
These parasites rely on their host to spread, passing the mites on through contact. Bee colonies are known for raiding one another. They penetrate to neighboring hives, infecting them with potential mites in the process. In this sense, mites can spread at a speedy rate.
By increasing the number of honey bee hives, these domesticated bees take over wild bees’ food and territory. They’re also often the ones to invade wild colonies, infecting them with diseases and mites.
Transportation for Pollination
Bee colonies are often transported from one location to another, to pollinate crops. As an example, to encourage almond trees to flourish, 1 million colonies are moved to California every year. This migration significantly increases the stress put on the bees, decreasing their overall lifespan.
Beekeepers’ Lack of Experience
Beekeeping has seen a rise in popularity. In 2018, an impressive 2.8 million honey bee colonies were reported in the United States.
Becoming a good beekeeper doesn’t happen overnight; it requires dedication and experience. With improper care and beekeeping practices, many inexperienced enthusiasts contributed to the decline of honey bees.
Climate change has had an immense impact on our environment. Temperatures are changing, and extreme weather conditions are becoming more frequent. In some regions of the world, rainfall has become scarce, while other areas have seen floods of biblical proportions.
These abnormal climatic events are having an impact both on the plants and flowers that bees feed on. It also changes colonies’ behaviors.
The seasons are shifting, and as a result, flowers are blooming at different times of the year. Bees have had to adapt. Over a period of 25 years, bees have cut their hibernation period by one month.
Why Are Bees Important?
As we discussed, bees have a significant impact on how certain plants and trees thrive. By carrying pollen from male to female plants, bees play a fundamental role in pollination.
It’s estimated that 369,000 plant species produce flowers, and 90 percent of them require pollination. In particular, almond and cherry trees rely solely on pollinators to multiply.
The extinction of bees would lead to the disappearance of all the plants reliant on them — sending a chain reaction along the food chain. Animals who once ate those plants will decline in population. Predators dependent on herbivores as a source of food would also suffer.
When it comes to us, keep in mind that today, 35 percent of our food — estimated at $577 billion — comes from crops pollinated by bees. Without honey bees, not only will our food source be impacted, but the economy as well.
If all bees died, here are some of the staples we would lose:
- Kidney beans
How You Can Help
Although the honey bee species isn’t part of the endangered list, they still need our attention and care to thrive. There are a few simple actions we can take to help them:
- Plant bee-friendly vegetation in your garden, such as flowers where honey bees could feed on
- At all costs, avoid using pesticides
- Create a bees’ nest — they’re easy to build and can be placed in any green space
Although honey bees aren’t part of the “Endangered Red List”, they still need our help and care. Industrial agriculture, parasites, domesticated honey bees, transportation for pollination, and beekeepers’ lack of experience are all detrimental to the species.
Pollination is critical for the survival of many plant species, in which bees play a primordial role. Their extinction could lead to the disappearance of many fruits and vegetables we all cherish.