By now, you’ve probably heard that there’s a problem with the bee population. But do you know why bees are disappearing or what the effects are? Read on to learn more about this issue and find out some easy ways you can help to combat the problem.

The Importance of Bees

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Before discussing the issue of bees disappearing, it’s important to understand why bees are so critical to our society in the first place. Bees are responsible for pollinating about one-third of everything you eat. This process of plant pollination allows crops to increase in both quality and yield. More than $15 million in increased crop value is attributed to bee pollination each year.

It’s incredible just how many of the foods we eat are affected by bees; in fact, 84 percent of crops grown for human consumption are pollinated by bees and other insects. That includes many fruits, vegetables, nuts, cocoa beans, coffee, tea, and other plants, such as sunflowers that are turned into cooking oils. Meanwhile, the crops grown to feed dairy cows and livestock, and other useful plants like cotton are also pollinated by bees.

The widespread effects of bee pollination help feed and clothe us. At the same time, they contribute to the growth of plants that are eaten by birds and mammals, thereby supporting complex food chains and the biodiversity in vast ecosystems. But considering that bees also help support the farmers who grow these crops, the process of pollination has far-reaching economic implications.

Colony Collapse Disorder

Bees have started to disappear at alarming rates. Based on the information about the many impacts of bee pollination, it’s clear why this is such a serious problem. Even more unsettling is the fact that there is no definitive cause for why bees are dying.

In 2006, about one-third of all honeybees in the U.S. were wiped out, with most just disappearing. When a colony has no adult bees or dead bee bodies (though a live queen, honey, and immature bodies are usually still present), this phenomenon is called colony collapse disorder (CCD). Though it has an official scientific name, the disorder is not fully understood. And while the cause of CCD is unclear, this recent widespread death of bees is suspected to be linked to a number of factors, including the use of pesticides, the presence of viruses and parasites, and poor nutrition.

Recent Developments

CCD became a serious problem beginning in late 2006. At that time, some beekeepers reported that between 30 and 90 percent of their hives had succumbed to this mysterious disorder. The problem of CCD has lessened to some extent since the initial outbreak. The portion of colony losses attributed to CCD was roughly 60 percent in 2008; as of 2013, that figure had dropped to around 31 percent. Other overall indicators of bee health, such as the number of hives that survive the winter, have improved slightly; the average figure has been 28.7 percent since 2006-2007, but it dropped to 23.1 percent for the winter of 2014-2015.

Despite some encouraging statistics, it’s important to remember that bee death is still a very serious threat. Of the 250 bumblebee species found throughout the world, about one-quarter are thought to be facing the risk of extinction.

What’s Being Done?

The thought of CCD getting worse is quite scary, not only for beekeepers and farmers, but also for economists. There’s no way to know how bad the problem could get and just how severely it could impact environmental health and economic success. Fortunately, several agencies in the U.S. are taking action to help understand and prevent CCD.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is leading the way on this issue through a number of proactive efforts. Many of these projects are being carried out by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), an internal research agency of the USDA. In addition to researching possible causes of CCD, the ARS is working to improve bee management practices and enhance overall bee health. This agency is also conducting studies on honey bee diseases and parasites in order to better understand and control them. Meanwhile, several federal agencies, state departments of agriculture, private companies, and universities are conducting additional CCD studies.

Currently, the ARS is looking at these four general categories as possible causes for CCD:

  1. Parasites: The Varroa mite is often found in colonies affected by CCD.
  2. Pathogens: While no single pathogen has been linked to CCD, the ARS is looking at total pathogen load of viruses and bacteria as it correlates with the disorder.
  3. Environmental stressors: Some stressors potentially linked to CCD involve pollen and nectar, including the lack of diversity, low nutritional value, and scarcity of these substances.
  4. Management stressors: Overcrowding and migratory stress during transportation are possible management stressors currently being studied.

How to Help

Wondering what you can do to help? There are several ways you can do your part to limit the number of bees disappearing, including:

  • Educate yourself and others: Learn more about the problem by watching the documentary“Vanishing of the Bees.” You can also read studies, books, and articles that further discuss this issue.
  • Buy organic products: Choosing organic fruits and veggies supports farmers who do their part to help bees thrive. The best organic products are usually found at local farmers markets.
  • Use natural pesticides: The toxic chemicals in most pesticides harm the bee population. Use natural ingredients like salt, citrus, and garlic to keep unwanted insects and animals out of your home and garden.
  • Grow a garden: By nurturing a garden of your own, you help prevent honey bees from disappearing in your neighborhood. Plant fruits, vegetables, wildflowers, or decorative flowers for the best results.
  • Become an amateur beekeeper: Setting up and maintaining your own beehive isn’t as daunting as you might think. Most require just an hour of work each week. Plus, you can get 20-50 pounds of honey from a single hive.

While fewer bee stings might seem like a short-term benefit of CCD, the long-term effects are actually quite dire. Take steps now to help fight the loss of bees, and help to educate others about this serious environmental and economic issue.

First photo via Flickr by bob in swamp. Second photo via Flickr by rickpilot_2000

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