Experts in the field of entomology—the study of insects—have been studying the ongoing crisis of declining honeybee populations, hoping to not only save honeybees from extinction but also get them flourishing again like that of previous years. One such expert, Dr. May Berenbaum, has been studying the chemical mechanisms between insects and their host plants her entire career and has even won the National Medal of Science, the highest honor of achievement in the science fields. In Washington state, Dr. Berenbaum recently gave a lecture to the public to spread awareness on the importance of honeybees as pollinators and the threats they face.
In order for people to fully understand honeybees, Berenbaum set the context for their intelligence. Specifically, honeybees are expert navigators, relying on smell and vibrational frequencies to communicate with one another. There’s even a method of strategy in how they search and forage for nectar—to communicate where a large cache of flowers or other blooming plants are, honeybees perform a “waggle dance,” which gives an exact measurement of how far the cache is, which direction it is, if there is wind or other environmental factors to be aware of–much like a map, this waggle dance uses small distances to accurately represent large distances. By understanding the exact nature of honeybee intelligence, Berenbaum was able to set the stage for how honeybees could possibly be disappearing and dying.
In a perfect world, honeybees could go about their days fulfilling their role in nature as pollinators. However, there are practices that put bees in danger, and Dr. Berenbaum, as one in the thick of the honeybee crisis, made it clear what those practices are and how they hurt these intelligent creatures. Honeybees are often transported across long distances over the country in movable hives, causing large amounts of stress on queens. Also, in order to produce more honey for consumers, beekeepers give bees sugar substitutes rather than their regular diet. “The industry is in danger,” Berenbaum said. “We keep stressing these bees to their limits. It’s a question of how much the species can endure before we push them over the edge.”
Dr. Berenbaum works for a “honeybee genome project” with the goal of discovering the different environmental and human factors leading to colony collapse disorder. One focus is pesticides, which affect honeybees on a molecular level by themselves and when combined. Honeybees have unique microbes that are meant to help their stomachs with detoxification, and combinations can lead to these microbes becoming ineffective and thereby disrupt the genetic makeup leading to the required intelligence bees need to function.
“It’s a very complicated story,” Berenbaum said. “But one thing is certain: the threats facing the honeybees are caused by humans.” As a way to round out her talk, Berembaum didn’t simply list problems past generations caused, drop the mic, and walk out; she advocated floral care promoting honeybee health—a cease of pesticides until absolutely necessary—and encouraged people to write to legislators to make clear the severity of declining honeybee populations. As one who wants to see honeybees not succumb due to human fault, Berenbaum expressed the care and concern necessary for one who seeks the solution honeybees need to be saved.