Around the world, honey bee colonies are dying in huge numbers: About one-third of hives collapse each year, a pattern going back a decade. The 2013-14 winter data results has proven higher losses around the globe for bees and the plants they pollinate; as well as for beekeepers, farmers, honey lovers and everyone else who appreciates this marvelous social insect; this is a catastrophe!
But in the midst of crisis comes learning. The honey bee collapse has much to teach us about how humans can avoid a similar fate; brought on by the increasingly severe environmental concerns that challenge us today.
The honey bee collapse has been vexing because there is no one reason, but rather a thousand causes. The main elements include the compounding impact of pesticides applied to fields, as well as pesticides applied directly into hives for mite control; fungal, bacterial and viral pests and diseases; nutritional deficiencies caused by vast acreages of mono-crop fields that lack diverse flowering plants. In the United States, commercial beekeeping disrupts colonies by moving most bees around the country multiple times each year to pollinate crops. Their queening practices, high fructose feeding, harvest exploitation, and rough handling may be thought of as insignificant, but it advances the already stressed status of bees.
The real issue, though, is not the volume of problems, but the interactions among them. Here we find a core lesson from the bees that we ignore at our own peril: the concept of synergy, where one plus one equals three, or four, or more. A typical honey bee colony contains residue from more than 66 pesticides. Alone, each represents a benign dose. But together they form a toxic soup of chemicals whose interaction can substantially reduce the effectiveness of bees’ immune system, making them more susceptible to diseases.
These findings provide the most sophisticated data available for any species about interactions among pesticides, and between pesticides and disease. The human equivalent is the pharmaceutical interactions with many prescription drugs showing harmful or fatal side effects when used together, particularly in patients who already are disease-compromised. Pesticides have medical impacts as potent as pharmaceuticals do, yet we know virtually nothing about their combined impact on our health, or their interplay with human diseases.
Observing the tumultuous demise of honey bees should alert us that our own well-being might be similarly threatened. The honey bee is a remarkably resilient species that has thrived for thousands of years, and the widespread collapse of so many colonies presents a clear message: We must demand that our regulatory authorities require studies on how exposure to low dosages of combined chemicals may affect human health before approving such compounds.
Bees also provide some clues to how we may build a more collaborative relationship with the services that ecosystems can provide. Beyond honey bees, there are thousands of wild bee species that could offer some of the pollination service needed for agriculture. Yet feral bees, that is, bees not kept by beekeepers, also are threatened by factors similar to those afflicting managed honey bees: heavy pesticide use, destruction of nesting sites by overly intensive agriculture and a lack of diverse nectar and pollen sources thanks to highly effective weed killers, which decimate the unmanaged plants that bees depend on for nutrition.
The Honeybee Conservancy can be contacted for responses to this article or other Honey Bee questions by calling 419.947.9436. Thanks.