The Honeybee: The Threats They Face and the Changes Needed to Save Them

Most Colorado residences believe that we should maintain our natural resources and help retain its inspiring beauty. This cannot be accomplished without the assistance of the honeybee and other native pollinators. Honeybees are an intricate part of our natural ecosystem throughout the state of Colorado. Whether we realize it or not, we are deeply dependent on these bees to help carry on the legacy of Colorado’s colorful wildflower environment. Most importantly, honeybees play a vital role in Colorado’s economy. They pollinate our fruit and vegetable crops and provide us with delicious honey and beeswax.

An essential way to understand the honeybee is through studying its astonishing adaptability. The honeybee is not native to Colorado, nor are they native to North America. The honeybee arrived on this continent through European migration in the early 1600s. These bees quickly established themselves, adapting to an unfamiliar environment, expanding to new territories and forming new colonies. Honeybees migrate through swarming, and by the early 1800s, the honeybee had swarmed its way from New England into Texas and Oklahoma. In 1848, with help from the Mormons, the honeybee made it to Utah. Botanist C. A. Shelton introduced the Honeybee to the Pacific coast in 1853. These resilient little insects have managed to survive ocean voyages and wagon train transport. They have adjusted to changes in altitude, climate, and varying terrains. Despite these changes, the honeybee continued to adapt and thrive in the vastness of this new land. 

The honeybee is responsible for directly pollinating one third of the food we eat, such as fruits, vegetables and nut trees. These bees are indirectly responsible for some of our other food sources, like the clover used to feed livestock that supply us with meat, milk and other animal products. Today, despite its amazing history of adaptability and resilience, the honeybee of Colorado faces threats to its existence like none before—human interference through industrial agriculture, the use of pesticides, and the loss of nutrient rich habitat. Although these threats are monumental, people can make the changes necessary to turn things around for the honeybee.

A popular practice of industrial agriculture is monoculture, the planting of one single crop in a field. In many cases, these monoculture ‘farms’ plant hundreds, even thousands, of acres of the same crop. These farms do not provide the type of nutrient rich environment needed to sustain wild honeybee colonies. Honeybees, like people, need variety in their diet to sustain good health. The monoculture environment offers only one food source for honeybees, and in many cases only for a brief period. This does not allow enough time for honeybees to collect what they need to survive the rest of the year. If the honeybee cannot secure another food source, the result can be starvation. Imagine that you only a few days to collect enough food to feed yourself and a large family for the entire year, but you could only collect apples. Your health and survival would be in question. Managed honeybees face the same dilemma.

Our answer to this problem of one crop for a limited time is to ship the bees from one monoculture crop to a different type of monoculture crop. These little guys get a change of diet. But they experience added stress, shipped from one place to another every few weeks. The journey, combined with only one food source to dine on for a week or two further compromises their immune systems. This leaves the bees weak and vulnerable to parasites and disease. In an article published by The Ecologist, author Allen Stromfeldt Christensen wrote, “honeybees are forced to feed on a homogeneous diet, resembling one where humans eat only bananas for three weeks, then broccoli for one week, carrots for two weeks, and so on.” Although each crop may be a healthy food source for the honeybee, they still need daily variety in their diets. The monoculture diet results in malnourishment, and leaves the honeybee in a weakened state. This further compounds the problems they face.

The honeybee faces additional threats from industrial agriculture; the use of GMO crops. Using biotechnology, these crops are grown from genetically altered seeds. The genetic material of these seeds is modified to withstand insects, herbicides, and other pests. GMO seeds are then coated with a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids. Scientists have now linked neonicotinoids to Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, which is responsible for the die-off of thousands of honeybee colonies across the nation. Neonics are 10,000 times more powerful than DDT. They have been proven to remain in crops as they grow, poisoning pollinators like bees, moths, butterflies, and other insects. Constant exposure to these chemicals wields yet another blow to the already threatened honeybee.

In the mid-1950s, the number of managed honeybee colonies totaled 600 million. Today, those numbers have plummeted to less than 2.5 million. In recent years, these losses have been attributed to Colony Collapse Disorder. CCD occurs when adult worker bees disappear, leaving behind a colony stocked with food, an unprotected the queen, and a few nurse bees to tend to the immature bees. CCD was first reported in 2006 when beekeepers began reporting larger than normal colony loss. At one point, the estimated losses were as high as 60% of managed colonies. Besides neonics, pathogens and parasites also aid in Colony Collapse Disorder. If the bees are already in a weakened state due to poor nutrition, exposure to pesticides, and loss of habitat, they will become victim to these additional threats.

As if honeybees do not already face enough problems, the use of other chemical herbicides on GMO crops, further threaten the bees’ existence. Dow’s 2,4-D, a product closely associated with Agent Orange, has been linked to cancer and birth defects in humans. This same product is proven to impair the honeybee’s reproductive system. Monsanto’s Roundup has a key ingredient known as glyphosate, which has been linked to widespread human and environmental health problems. In addition, this link extends to bee die-off, as well as the population decline of the monarch butterfly. Both Monsanto and Dow market GMO seeds treated with these highly toxic products. Crops like corn, soybeans, sugar beets, and canola are grown form their GMO seeds. These same toxins are also used in urban areas. This extends the impact that these chemicals have on the honeybee, beyond the agricultural environment.                          

A variety of herbicides and pesticides are used throughout our neighborhoods and towns to control weeds and insects. They are applied to lawns and gardens, school yards, parks and on golf courses. This seemingly beneficial use of poisonous products adds to the bees’ exposure, further threatening the already weakened honeybees’ survival. To add more fuel to the fire, many beekeepers add pesticide strips to their bee hives to ward off mites. The result of this added assault on the honeybee has created pesticide resistant mites. Beekeepers often treat their honeybees with antibiotics to ward off bacterial infections. This further complicates the situation for the bees, who now carry antibiotic resistant bacteria in their systems. It seems that when there’s a problem humans create, directly or indirectly, the solution; treat the problem with a chemical based substance in hopes that the problem will be solved. In many cases, no thought is given to the long-term effects that the solution might have on the patient, much less it’s offender. 

The final straw on the proverbial camel’s back is the loss of natural habitat. In Colorado, urban sprawl, roadside mowing, and the need for more land to expand industrial monoculture farming all aid in the elimination of diverse flowering habitat essential to a healthy, balanced diet for honeybee survival. As humans break for a new development, housing, or a single crop, diverse feeding grounds are mowed down. These actions eliminate native vegetation which provide a variety of nutrients and proteins essential to all pollinators. The loss of natural habitat in Colorado will continue to invade all native species. As the population of this state, and our demand for more land grows, habitat reduction will continue. We need to make changes, and those changes need to start with everyday people on a local level.

Although it appears that the future of the honeybee lies in the hands of industrial agriculture favored monoculture, and companies like Monsanto, Dow and Bayer, who peddle their poisons and neonic drenched seeds to GMO farms, this cannot be further from the truth. It’s true, these big businesses operate with the support of the federal government, while backed by the scientists on their payrolls. Yet, these companies can experience pressure to make changes, and the pressure must start with the consumer. We the people of Colorado can begin by making changes in the way we do business with these entities, and we need to act now. The honeybee’s existence, and our environment depends on us to force change and clean up the mess that we have created. It is a tall order, and a problem that will not go quietly into the night. The answers to a healthy future for the honeybee already lays before us. They rest with the Colorado consumers’ growing desire for everything organic and green.

In recent years, the demand for organically grown vegetables and fruits have begun to push local farmers to make a switch from today’s traditional farming to more organic methods. Today, “Consumers are more and more engaged in their food purchases than ever before. Consumers not only want to know where their food comes from, but also how it was produced,” according to Tom Lipetzky, the Director of Marketing Programs and Strategic Initiatives with the Colorado Department of Agriculture. Our demand for more organic foods is obvious, as seen in local advertisements, and on grocer’s shelves throughout Colorado.

What once were small displays of organic products on grocers’ shelves, has now become a larger, more noticeable selection. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that the only place to find organic foods was specialized stores such as Wholefood, or local farmer’s markets. It appears people have begun to understand that our food needs to be natural. Returning to organic growing can only aid in the survival on the honeybee.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that the organic farming industry in Colorado had more than doubled in sales in just a three-year period, increasing from $66.2 million in 2012 to $155.2 million in 2015. Currently, certified organic farmland covers more than 155,000 acres across Colorado, with an additional 70,000 acres dedicated to organic rangeland and pastures. This is up from 2011s figures of only 100,000 acres of organic farmland. This growth is great news for Colorado, and the trend will continue with increased consumer demand for GMO and pesticide free foods.

As more local farmers heed the call for organic farming, they face significant expense to become certified organic. The process can take up to three years and the transition can be daunting, as they work to comply with regulations set by the USDA. Yet, new innovations in technology are allowing farmers to affordably grow and protect their organic crops in a more efficient, and less expensive way than in the past. Because of the changes in farming methods, it makes it more affordable for farmers to grow our food without the use of chemicals and GMOs that traditional agriculture has depended on. This makes it possible for the honeybee to live a healthier existence in Colorado. In fact, many of these farms support and house their own honeybee colonies, while encouraging the growth of native vegetation to add variety to the pollinators’ diet.

Variety is said to be the spice of life. Unlike monoculture farms, organic farms grow a variety of chemical free products, including fertilizers. Anywhere from fifty to over 100 varieties of fruits, vegetables, grains, and even flowers are grown in one season. Planting a variety of crops has a beneficial effect on the land and is good for business. To maintain good health and wellbeing requires a variety in food consumption, for all species, including the honeybee. This movement towards organic farming is a major move in the right direction for the future of the honeybee. Organic farming offers much needed variety to the honeybees’ diet. Freeing them of the neonic based herbicides and pesticides that have played a key role in CCD, not to mention the other health problems that the bees face.

The key solution to the fate of the honeybee rests in organic agriculture, but we must remain diligent. We must pay attention to this movement. Organic agriculture is become big business. As large corporations are introduced to the market, the concern that they will lobby the government to lower the regulations on organic growing is real. If this happens, it will compromise the quality of organic foods. The change would place the endangered bees at further risk. We cannot afford to take one step forward in saving our bees, and three steps backwards. 

Although organic agriculture creates a honeybee friendly environment, the use of pesticides in surrounding areas by non-organic farms, city parks, golf courses, and neighborhoods still pose a huge problem for the honeybee. These poisonous chemicals are used on fields, grasses, and flowerbeds to control pests and weeds. They become airborne and end up contaminating other areas outside of the application sites.

Beekeeper Beth Conrey of Boulder County has experienced this first hand. In 2015, Conrey spoke to The Denver Post about how pesticides have affected her honeybee hives, positioned near a local apple and cherry tree farm. While inspecting her hives, she found trays of dead bees. A contractor had recently sprayed pesticide on adjacent Boulder County Open Space and the result was the demise of her honeybees. “We’ve got to reduce or eliminate pesticide use,” said Conrey. According to federal data, pollination performed by managed honeybee colonies add $15 billion a year to agriculture in the U.S. The future of our vegetable, nuts, and fruit crops depend on the pollination of honeybees.

There have been some steps made on the federal level to protect the honeybee and other pollinators. In May of 2015, the government issued a National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honeybees and Other Pollinators. This strategy called for the creation of 7 million acres of corridors containing diverse vegetation that provide the nectar and pollen needed to help sustain honeybees and other pollinators. The Colorado-based Keystone Policy Group is working through the National Honey Bee Health Coalition to speed up action on this issue. They are looking at surveys that suggest that wild honeybees are just as hard hit by the effects of pesticide use as managed honeybees. Some data suggests that the U.S. population of wild honeybees has declined to a fraction of what it was in 1985. This is another reason why we must promote the elimination of pesticides in all areas of our lives. The survival of the honeybee, both managed and feral, depends on it. If beekeepers are forced out of business because all their honeybees disappear, it will devastate our agriculture and the economy, not to mention the ecosystem in which the honeybee has become an intricate part of.

Rather than attacking these issues on a federal level, we need to start on a local level. We can start to make changes by halting the use of these harmful pesticides, starting with our lawns and recreation areas. Consumer demand for the availability and use of organic, environmentally safe products can force the big chemical companies to begin developing products that will not have a negative impact on the honeybee. We can work at a local level with our city agencies to change the way we treat city grounds and open space. We can make our voices heard, by sending the message that we will no longer the use of toxic chemicals in our communities, the chemicals responsible for killing our honeybees, while posing health risks to ourselves and our environment.  

We should also encourage the planting of native vegetation around our cities and towns. Planting bee friendly flowers in our communities will encourage a healthier lifestyle for pollinators. We can push to restore native habitats that have been lost due to population growth. We can call for legislation to mandate that all monoculture farms must plant foraging corridors of native vegetation near their crops, to encourage diversity while providing a healthy feeding ground for honeybees. We can be the squeaky wheel, letting our local and state governments know that this issue is important to us, and needs to be fixed. Money talks, so our continued financial support of organic products, as well as our discontinued support of lethal pesticides, will change the way Colorado does business in the future, while securing the future of this states’ most valued, non-indigenous insect.

Colorado can be an example to the rest of the nation on how to restore and regain the receding population of the honeybee. We must ensure that the honeybee continues to live on for generations. After all, their existence plays a vital role in of our ecosystem, insuring that our agriculture and economy remains strong. What a big part for such a little bee. Human interference has caused the issues that the honeybee faces today, and human intervention can solve these problems, but it will take a united front to force the changes needed to save our honeybees. 

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Susan Andrews has been a resident of Colorado for 26 years. She is currently pursuing a degree in Fine Art with a focus on painting and photography. Susan loves the outdoors and spends her free time gardening and painting.

Photo By: Spirits of Nature: Pinterest

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