The pleasant buzz of the honeybee is going silent across the nation, and the globe. But not everyone is planning on letting bees bumble gently into that good night.
Since 2006, U.S. beekeepers have been seeing colony losses of an average of 33 percent a year, with a third of that attributed to colony collapse disorder, or CCD, the abrupt disappearance of worker bees from the hive.
“If losses continue at the 33 percent level, it could threaten the economic viability of the bee pollination industry,” the USDA says. “Honey bees would not disappear entirely, but the cost of honey bee pollination services would rise, and those increased costs would ultimately be passed on to consumers through higher food costs.”
But the threats facing bees are legion, and CCD has been blamed on a variety of factors.
“We've seen losses more recently from everything imaginable," North Dakota beekeeper Zac Browning told National Geographic last May. "Pests, parasites, pesticide exposure, starvation, queen failures, you name it."
Since no one can quite pin down a singular cause for the drop in bee populations across the globe, a nest of different approaches to saving the honeybee is springing up. Here are just a few of the measures that are being taken to try and save the bees:
Europe’s pesticide ban
Last April, the European Union voted to ban a certain class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. These chemicals are similar to nicotine, which can give humans a nice buzz. But in bees, neonicotinoid exposure is thought to have a wide range of negative effects, primarily scrambling a bee’s ability to navigate so it can’t forage properly and suppressing the immune system and leaving the bee vulnerable to parasites.
Pesticide makers like Bayer CropScience and Syngenta have argued that research on neonicotinoids subjects bees to unrealistically high doses of the chemicals, and that other factors like disease and nutrition are more likely to blame for the decline in bee populations. The British government has accepted the ban but disputed some of the scientific justification for it.
Nevertheless, the EU ban went into effect this past December and will last for two years. Some scientists fear that European farmers may turn to more toxic pesticides in the wake of the ban, while others fear that crop pests may seize their advantage in the coming years. Only time will tell what the ban has wrought.
Combating the varroa mite
One of the other prime suspects in CCD is the varroa mite, a tiny arachnid that can hitch a ride back to beehives on the backs of foraging worker bees. Once it invades the hive, the mite lays its eggs in honeycombs alongside young bees. The mite brings its own hitchhikers into the colony as well: bacteria, viruses and other pathogens that can sweep through the bees.
Bayer scientists and bee researchers from Frankfurt University have come up with a way to nip the varroa mite right at the entrance of the hive, using a specially designed entryway for commercial hives. When bees pass through this varroa gate through small entry holes, they brush up against a coating of poison that targets the mite (it’s based on the same principle as a flea collar for dogs or cats).
In Australia, where the mite has yet to gain a foothold, scientist Denis Anderson has been searching for a chemical switch that would allow him to turn off the mite’s breeding cycle. But, Anderson says his work has been hampered by a lack of funds, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
Filling empty bee bellies
Any hungry creature is vulnerable to illness and calamity, and bees are no exception. And the spread of modern agriculture, coupled with skyrocketing demand for biofuels, may be chewing up the bees’ sources of food.
American grasslands are rich in wildflowers, which provide food for a host of pollinating insects, including honeybees. But these grasslands are being destroyed as a study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found. The study found that 1.3 million acres of grassland and wetland were converted to cropland in the Dakotas, Nebraska and parts of Minnesota and Iowa between 2006 and 2011, at a rate not seen since before the Dust Bowl.
“High corn and soybean prices, driven by demand for biofuel feedstocks, have accelerated the conversion of open land to cropland, which offers bees (even cultivated ones) nothing to eat outside of the two or three weeks when a crop blossoms,” Bloomberg’s editorial team noted in May (as part of a larger argument against Europe’s pesticide ban).
Hives might be better able to combat disease and other threats on full bellies. But trying to improve bee nutrition is perhaps one of the more difficult ways to combat bee decline. Farmers would have to be encouraged to make sweeping changes to how they use their land and to leave it fallow for part of the year. States would have to push to plant flowering weeds and other native plants. If bee populations continue to decline, though, significant measures may be necessary to keep bees flying.