Although tiny, bees are one of the most important members of our ecosystem. Found on all continents except Antarctica, these tiny wayfarers represent the major mechanism of pollination for the flowering plants and crops that we humans depend upon. Without bees there would be no blueberries, grapes or apples, no cashews or almonds, no soybeans, and no cotton. Up to one-third of the world's food supply could be endangered by the loss of bees. And yet the population of wild bees has plummeted in recent years.
The reason for this decline, known as colony collapse disorder, is not yet entirely clear, though it seems that multiple factors may be at play. One possibility is an outbreak of Israel acute paralysis virus (IAPV) which causes the bees to experience flight problems followed by total paralysis and death outside their hives. Studies have also pointed to the involvement of a small parasitic mite called Varroa destructor
. These mites carry another deadly disease, deformed wing virus, which can quickly spread through an entire hive, decreasing the bees' immunity and rendering them flightless. Nosema
, a small, unicellular fungus may also play a role by disrupting the bees' digestive systems.
Natural factors such as disease and parasite infection are not the only possible contributors, however. Human disruption of the environment certainly plays a key role, through air and water pollution, electromagnetic radiation, and the use of pesticides, all of which are detrimental to bee populations. In particular, imidacloprid, a nicotine-based chemical, is known to have an adverse effect on bees. Despite its ban in other countries, both the Clinton and Bush administrations relaxed the regulation of imidacloprid, leading to an increase in its use in the U.S. Unsurprisingly, this coincided with a decrease in bee populations.
While all bees are susceptible to diseases and poisons, it is also important to remember that in the U.S. we have two different groups of bees at work. Feral, or wild bees, have been heavily impacted by colony collapse, leading farmers to rely on domesticated bees for pollination. These bees, which are managed by apiarists, are sometimes fed an artificial diet which may include high fructose corn syrup and single-source pollen. Scientists have hypothesized that this poor diet contributes to an overall unhealthiness in the bees, making them more susceptible to disease, possibly even leading to colony collapse in domestic stocks.
In Illinois, citizens and scientists are working together to help save both wild and domestic bee populations. The Department of Agriculture has launched a website which allows licensed pesticide applicators to download a map
showing the locations of Illinois' hives, enabling them to avoid spraying the bees' home areas. The Department of Agriculture also tracks voluntary reporting
of invasive pests such as the small hive beetle, allowing beekeepers to better protect their stocks. Researchers at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign encourage all Illinoisans to get involved in the fight to save our bees by reporting wild bee sightings
. Or, if buzzing around these little aeronauts isn't your thing, have a bowl of Häagen-Dazs
. The ice cream maker has started a program
to help discover the cause of colony collapse while maintaining bee populations.
Despite being maligned for the sting they pack, honeybees do far more good than harm. They are an intrinsic and essential part of our natural world, and a fundamental member of the food web that sustains us all. Scientists, citizens, apiarists, agriculturalists and lawmakers all have a responsibility to protect the bees. If we work together, with a little luck we just may be able to save them.
Photo 1: Strange Ones/Flickr
Photo 2: wolfpix/Flickr