It’s All about the Bees

Take a moment and imagine your favorite fruit. Visualize the bright sheen of a perfectly ripe cherry, or the deliciously sweet, grainy texture of a pear. Whether you enjoy the occasional apple as a midday snack or start each day with a bowl of oatmeal sprinkled with blueberries, the sweet treat you’re eating is probably here thanks to bees. It’s unfortunate that most of us take this small pleasure for granted because if agricultural practices continue as they are, we may not be able to enjoy these fruits much longer.

Bees are responsible for an estimated 15 billion dollars of agricultural resources annually. They provide the pollination of fruits, vegetables, and nuts that make up approximately 1/3 of the diet for humans both domestically and throughout the world. Bees are also the primary pollinators for alfalfa, legumes, and clover, which are eaten by livestock. In addition to playing a vital role in biodiversity, bees are an environmental index species. The health of an ecosystem is directly reflected in the general wellbeing of the regional colonies of bees.

The field of apiculture (beekeeping) has drawn attention recently due to the growing amount of colony collapse disorder recorded in the last decade. Colony collapse disorder, or CCD, is recognized as the mass emigration of worker bees from a hive in addition to three other characteristics: the absence of dead bees at the hive site; no overwhelming infestation of mites or other pathogens; and the remaining queen with a live brood within the hive. Although research is still ongoing, the main reason for this widespread depopulation points to the dominance of monocultures and the pesticides that are necessary to maintain them.

Monoculture farming refers to the agricultural practice of growing large expanses of tightly packed, genetically identical plants over many consecutive years. Modern farmers use this method because it is a way to produce greater yields while minimizing production and labor costs. The problem is that monocultures are completely, inherently unsustainable. Monoculture farming proves destructive for a few basic reasons. First, homogenous crops are particularly susceptible to a variety of infestations. When such a large area of similar plants is surrounded by wild organisms (insects, fungi, bacteria etc.), it becomes necessary to continually expend more resources on controlling and separating these two ecosystems by means of pesticides or further genetic engineering that might allow plants to deter pests independently. This leads into the second and possibly larger problem with monocultures — they do not allow natural adaptation and diversity to occur. With no genetic variability and no natural reproduction, the plant population is unable to change as the surrounding conditions fluctuate. These fields are the equivalent of food deserts for regional pollinators such as bees.

Neonicotinoids are a group of pesticides used in farming that can be applied as seed coating or saturated into soil, which is then taken up and distributed to every part of the plant. This includes the flowers, where visiting bees gather pollen and nectar for themselves and the developing larva within each hive. Neonicotinoids are being publicized as safer, more advanced pesticides because of their systemic action. It is no longer necessary to spray numerous applications on crops due to the potency at low concentrations. There is also a persistent level of chemicals found in crops and soil even after several months, allowing for a smaller amount of this pesticide to be used in the next planting.

However, these same attributes make neonicotinoids very dangerous for creatures such as bees. The initial exposure level is one well below the lethal limit, but bees can visit over a thousand flowers in one day. In addition, studies have not been conducted to further explore the lasting effects of these chemicals on the brood within each colony. The toxicity increases with each bee that returns home, laden with poisoned pollen and with each generation that is born under these circumstances.

All of this information indicates to me that CCD is the culmination of several factors that would, under normal circumstances, not be terminal to a colony. However, the systemic pesticides in use today compromise the immune system of bees past a threshold that enables them to fight these invasions adequately, and the scarcity of hospitable environments offers bees no real option for relief.

Fortunately, there are several ways you can help bees survive and thrive. Choosing locally grown and, when possible, organic produce is a great way to show that you understand and care about where your food is coming from. You can also create bee sanctuaries in your own yard by planting a variety of native flowers. Recognize that a lawn of grass does nothing but provide a specific aesthetic and waste water. Instead of spending time and money trying to grow a green patch of nothing, choose to provide a much needed ecosystem to regional pollinators. You can secure a balanced and beautiful diet for future generations by taking a moment to consider and appreciate the importance of bees.