Toy Fore, executive director of the American Beekeeping Federation, recently stated that approximately 100,000 people in the United States keep bees as a hobby. That sounds like a lot, but in the 1970’s the number was around 200,000. As America has urbanized and parasitic mites have spread, beekeeping has become more expensive, and consequently it has suffered a decline.
Keeping pace with the decline of beekeepers, natural populations of wild honeybees have also been on the decline in recent years. Urbanization and parasitic mites have taken their toll in nature as effectively as in man-made bee colonies.
Some estimates (such as that by Target Health, Inc.) say that as much as ninety percent of the North American wild bee population has died out. Target Health, Inc. reports similar decline in Europe. As much as one-third of the U.S. honeybee population died over the winter of 2012-2013 alone.
One of the major factors contributing to this decline in honeybee populations is the colony collapse disorder. This syndrome occurs when the worker bees leave the hive. These worker bees provide the nectar for the brood, the colony’s immature bees. Under normal circumstances, the worker bees will not leave the hive until all the brood has hatched successfully. However, ever since 2004, many North American beekeepers have seen their entire worker bee population abandon the colony before the brood has hatched. As you can guess, the brood typically does not survive.
While it is still not entirely clear what is causing this syndrome, entomologists and beekeepers are chalking it up to a combination of parasites, disease, changes in the environment, pesticides, genetically modified produce, and malnutrition. For example, there is strong evidence that Israel Acute Paralysis Virus is partly to blame as it causes paralysis to the bees. Nosema apis, a fungus that is another possible culprit, keeps the bees from properly digesting pollen. Infected honeybees brought Israel Acute Paralysis Virus and Nosema apis into the U.S., and the two killers have been spreading ever since.
Nicotine-based pesticides are believed to be another component in the declining bee populations. Another contributor to the loss is the Varroa mite. Perhaps the biggest factor—malnutrition—has commodity crop monocultures (such as corn and wheat) to blame. Lack of proper nutrition and healthy diet weakens the bees before Varroa or Nosema apis completes the grim process.
As honeybee populations continue to decline, effective agriculture will also be affected. While plants can be pollinated by other insects, honey bee pollination is unique because honeybees will come back to a flower several times, establishing complete pollination. Albert Einstein once said, “If the honeybee becomes extinct, mankind will follow within four years.” Honeybee pollination contributes more than $15 billion to the U.S. crop value annually.
One solution would be to ban the harmful pesticides and farming practices that are directly contributing to the decline in natural bee populations. For example, a ban on neonicotinoids would relieve some of the oppression. However, neonicotinoids were developed and introduced because they are supposed to be safer for mammals, especially human beings. Any ban in favor of the honeybees may in fact mean introduction of an alternative that is harmful to another link in the food chain.
In a world that daily becomes less and less hospitable to natural honeybees, backyard beekeeping is more than ever the solution and a staple of our agricultural economy. As beekeepers offset the decline in natural honeybee population levels, plants have a chance to receive the natural pollination that causes them to thrive and reproduce effectively. Beekeeping, a fun and productive hobby, may be the answer to the agricultural dilemma of the decline of natural honeybees.