honeybees, pollination, colony collapse disorder

For those who don’t already know what honeybees face, it’s probably safe to say the most you ever thought honeybees could do was sting you and cause a little bit of short term pain. However, as many outside the science and beekeeping communities are beginning to understand, honeybees and other pollinators, tiny as they are, are some of the most crucial elements in our lives, providing the means by which plants create the vegetables and fruits we and livestock eat. With honeybees in particular disappearing as quickly as they are, the ripple effect will likely be felt around the world if a solution isn’t found to colony collapse disorder (CCD), an enigma of unknown cause.

CCD, described as the mysterious disappearance of thousands of worker bees from a hive with only a queen and immature bees left, has been on biologists’ radar for over a decade. Between 2006 and 2007, US beekeepers began reporting losses at 30 to 90 percent. The most common major symptom was mass worker bee disappearance (not death), which had not been seen on such a large scale, and without those worker bees, a hive inevitably dies. The trend has only gotten worse, with 5,000 US beekeepers losing 44 percent of their colonies between 2015 and 2016—and not just in winter, but in summer when bees should be most productive.

Thousands of bee species and other pollinators that once flourished now face possible extinction due to pesticide use, pathogens, climate change, and the still unexplained CCD. With the threat to the global food supply clear, the United Nations held the first comprehensive study on pollinator extinction, discovering that $235 to $577 billion in global crops could be negatively impacted if pollinators continue to disappear. Even further, it was found that every third bite of the food we eat exists because of honeybee pollination.

These plants and bees, as developed over millennia, have formed a symbiotic of relationship of sorts, relying on each other in order to flourish and survive—the US alone faces more than $14 billion lost in agricultural revenue should this mutualistic relationship vanish. Where we once had access to many fruits and vegetables, only corn, wheat, and oats would remain, as these crops are pollinated through wind. Cotton, making up 40 percent of the world’s fibers for clothing, would also suffer (ironically, most cotton crops are doused with neonic insecticides, one of the most significant threats to honeybees).

If honeybees and other pollinators were lost, our lives would change dramatically, forcing humans to pollinate plants themselves by manually moving pollen from plants’ anthers to their stigmas—for every single plant necessary to feed 7 billion people. Life as we know it would be warped and decidedly more difficult, which hopefully provides an idea of how necessary honeybees are for everyone’s survival.

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