Since the mid-2000s, researchers are finding that honey bee populations have been on a constant state of decline. While these innocuous insects may seem like they provide nothing more than honey to the human population, they are actually one of the most vital animals in the world when it comes to modern agriculture. As this epidemic becomes more alarming, it is important for everyone to know just how essential these animals are to one’s diet, why they may be vanishing, and what can be done about it.
Options for successfully producing crops has advanced dramatically in recent years, but many people are still unaware about just how big of a role that pollinators continue to play. While new disease-resistant crops help combat weaker production years and natural pesticides help to keep produce safe, countless foods are almost completely reliant on natural pollinators. Depending on the type and location of the crop, honey bees are often seen as one of the most essential pollinators. Modern studies even show that as many as 1 in 3 bites taken by the majority of humans come from a crop pollinated by animals.
For upwards of 10 years, beekeepers within Europe and the United States are seeing record drops in their colonies. Some specialists are even finding hives that are losing 30 percent of the population every single year. As these numbers hit a critical level, it is now more apparent than ever just how important bees are to agriculture, even outside of the honey-producing industry. One of the biggest food products that is seeing this epidemic is the almond orchards of California.
In recent years, almonds have become California’s number one overseas export with over 800,000 acres of almond trees currently producing. In order to facilitate this process, beekeepers from around the country and now around the world bring in domesticated honey bees to help with the pollination process. In the typical year, 1.6 million bees were brought in to help with tree pollination, but the last few years have hit the industry hard. It was only through a massive worldwide scramble for enough usable colonies that almond producers were able to almost match the yearly demand for almonds.
While the huge impact on the almond industry is enough to cause alarm all on its own, both domesticated and wild honey bees are used to pollinate some of the most important crops in the United States and the rest of the world. As the population hits record lows, these crops are in danger of collapsing. For fruits and vegetables, honey bees help to pollinate blueberries, cherries, citrus fruits, avocados, olives, peaches, pears, asparagus, pumpkins, cucumbers, and celery. Potentially even more catastrophic is their impact on staple crops that are used to produce both food and non-edible products. This includes alfalfa hay, cotton, peanuts, sunflowers, and soybeans.
No one knows for sure exactly what is causing the decline in honey bees, and making this process even more difficult is the fact that honey bees are not native to the New World, but they are declining worldwide at similar rates. Most research is being directed at four different variables including pathogens, parasites, management stressors, and environmental stressors. Pathogens and parasites often receive the majority of attention due to the fact that common fungi and mites are found in dying honey bees. Management and environmental stressors have only recently gotten more attention as researchers are exploring the effects of transporting honey bees over long distances, overcrowding in apiaries, and the nutrition that the bees receive.
The United States Department of Agriculture is now calling this decline in honey bee populations CCD, or Colony Collapse Disorder. As the colonies continue to dwindle, the effects are being seen worldwide including essential crops for edible and non-edible products. Luckily, this has brought worldwide attention and increased funding, but researchers are still at a loss as to exactly what is causing this epidemic.