What’s happening to the humble honeybee? During the winter of 2018, roughly 40% of honeybee colonies in the United States died. Since then, the numbers have continued to decline. Beekeepers are steadily losing colonies. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the number of honeybee hives in this country has decreased from 5 million in the 1940s to about 2.5 million today.
Pollinators are a vital part of agricultural production. Honeybees pollinate about one-third of American crops, a critical process for a healthy supply chain. It’s estimated that honeybees contribute nearly $20 billion to the value of US agriculture. They’re essential to the production of fruits and vegetables, and declining numbers will not only impact what we all put on our tables every day but the economy at large. As bees flit from plant to plant gathering nectar for their survival, they pollinate crops such as apples, cranberries, melons, and broccoli. Some crops, including blueberries and cherries, are 90 percent dependent on honeybee pollination!
The Threat to Honeybees
Honeybees face multiple threats, both natural and man-made.
Habitat loss has certainly impacted the space they have to roam and create hives. Bees travel for miles and need broad areas with lots of flowers, a source of water, and undisturbed nature in which to build hives. Residential and commercial development has replaced nature in many areas, making it difficult for bees to find a home.
Pesticides and Climate Change
Increased use of chemicals both in farming and residential living has decimated bee populations. Even when the pesticides are not meant for bees, they often kill any insect in their path and winds can carry droplets across large geographic areas, contaminating bee environments and damaging colonies. Scientists believe that climate change is also impacting bees. Climate change is bringing on extreme weather events which can affect the timing of flowers blooming. Fewer flowers available in the early spring mean less food for bees.
Disease and Predators
Finally, disease and predators have accounted for declining bee populations. Pests like the mites hurt bees by invading their hives, sometimes causing Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which makes bees sick, disoriented, and unable to find their way back home. Predators like bears, mice, moths, and wasps can destroy hives and their bee populations.
US Government Efforts to Restore Honeybee Population
The US Department of Agriculture announced $8 million in funding for farmers and ranchers in five states to establish new habitats for honeybee populations. The EPA will limit harmful pesticides and earlier this year, hives were even installed outside the Vice President’s residence, to encourage citizens to establish beehives where they could, or at least to plant bee-friendly flowers and flowering herbs in their gardens and yards.
Shore Bags Honors Honeybees with New Design
Honeybees are some of the hardest workers you’ll ever see, but they need our help! We know that the delicate balance between humans and nature is at a critical moment, and we wanted to raise awareness of the importance of bees and encourage their protection. So we’ve designed a new print for our popular Bodega Tote, featuring a honeybee and the words, “Bees & Trees.” We aim to celebrate the honeybee and inspire others to do the same.
To help bees, minimize insecticide use by only spraying when necessary. Be sure to read all pesticide labels for proper application directions. There may be several insecticides used for the same pest. Choose products least harmful to bees. Also, avoid insecticide use while plants are flowering to minimize bee kill.
Factor 3 Beekeepers are seeing depressed local honey markets. To make money, beekeepers ship bees all over the country to fill pollination contracts for almonds, blueberries, cranberries, etc. The number of acres of these crops is increasing faster than several bees used to pollinate them, which causes pollination contract prices to increase. These crops require large numbers of honey bee colonies for pollination. For example, over 1 million bee colonies are required for California almonds in early spring. Having large numbers of bees in small areas puts nutritional stress on bees as they compete for pollen and nectar. Increased movement for pollination leads to disease transfer. “Shipping bees for pollination is like sending your kids to school,” said one beekeeper, “They come back with all the sicknesses around.”
To help bees buy local honey. If beekeepers make more money locally, they may not need the extra money from pollination and can leave their bee’s homes. Local honey is fresh and delicious, and it gives a warm feeling to know that you are helping local folks and getting a good product. Also, you can ask the beekeeper directly how honey is handled and if chemicals were used in production. Buying locally can create more sustainable agricultural systems.
Factor 4 Bee diseases and parasites are often present in honeybee hives. Over time, colonies can become weakened or less productive. Diseases contributing to colony collapse disorder are not new but have been affecting bees for a while.
Varroa mites (Varroa destructor) were introduced in the U.S. in the 1980s. These mites attach to bee larvae and parasitize bees, living on the outside of the bee’s body. They are relatively large compared to the bee, about 1/6th of the bee’s body weight. To eliminate varroa mite infestations, beekeepers sometimes put insecticides (pyrethroids and organophosphates) in the beehive with the bees. Mites are becoming resistant to insecticides and beekeepers risk residue build-up in beeswax and honey (Spivak and Reuter, 2007b).
Nosema species, foulbrood, and chalkbrood spores can be stored in old wax combs for years. Therefore, beekeepers need to remove old wax combs from hives. These can contain disease spores and pesticide residue.
Beekeepers are fighting these diseases using innovative strategies and by developing genetically resistant lines of bees. For example, some bees exhibit “hygienic behavior,” in which worker bees detect and remove 95% of diseased brood from the comb before hatching (Spivak and Reuter, 2007b). Bees that exhibit hygienic behavior detect and remove varroa mites, Nosema, and Foulbrood-infected larvae. Queens can pass hygienic behavior to their offspring. This means beekeepers can select this trait and make their hives more resistant to disease!
The varroa mite is also a possible vector for several honeybee viruses, including the Acute Paralysis Virus and the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus. These viruses can severely weaken bees and make them more susceptible to other diseases (Bakonyi et al., 2002).
Acute Paralysis Virus and Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus eventually cause paralysis in honeybees. Bees are found dead outside the hive. Both viruses contribute to the Colony Collapse Disorder of varroa mite-infested colonies.
Nosema APIs and Nosema ceranae are internal parasites that cause osmosis, or acute diarrhea, in bees. Honeybees are generally very clean insects and defecate outside the hive. Osmosis causes them to be so sick they cannot make it outside to defecate. Thus, spores from fecal matter can infect other bees in the hive. Nosema is what causes the complete disappearance of bees in the hive.
Foulbrood and chalkbrood are spore-forming bacterial diseases that infect honeybee broods (Hansen and Brossard, 2003). Without proper sanitation, foulbrood can weaken or kill a colony in one season.