With their buzzing little bodies, their often feared stingers, and their servitude towards a single queen, honeybees have long fascinated us. Look no further than Jerry Seinfeld, who based an entire animated film (Bee Movie) on one, or the marketing people behind Honey Nut Cheerios for proof.
Unfortunately, honeybees also continue to be in grave danger, and declining populations have led to public concern and more people within the scientific community taking note.
Colony Collapse Disorder and the four “P”s
In 2006 honeybees made headlines as a result of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), when hives inexplicably died out in the winter months. The media caught on and government officials pressed scientists for an answer to the mysterious happenings, as others cited the rapture and conspiracy theories.
While the exact cause of CCD remains unknown (chronic disease and environmental stress play a role), it has effectively stopped in the last few years. But that doesn’t mean bee populations are faring much better.
As a result of the four “P”s: poor nutrition, pesticides, pathogens, and parasites, bees continue dying at alarming rates. Between April 2016 and March 2017, about one third of the hives in the U.S. perished—and that was only the second-lowest loss in the last seven years.
In Canada we’re faring slightly better, with reported colony loss at 16.8 per cent in 2016.
The value of pollination
Losing bees at such alarming rates isn’t just bad news for honey lovers. On a larger scale, bees are important pollinators that affect the availability of food worldwide (more than 80 per cent of food crops require pollination, or to put it another way, one in every three bites of food we consume is pollinated). Meanwhile, roughly 1.4 billion jobs and three-quarters of all crops depend on them. Without bees to pollinate plants for free, the industry would skyrocket billions of dollars.
“Insects make up about two-thirds of all life on Earth [but] there has been some kind of horrific decline,” Dave Goulson at Sussex University said in conjunction with a study revealing a 75 per cent decline in flying insects. “We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life, and are currently on course for ecological Armageddon. If we lose the insects then everything is going to collapse.”
In Canada, 95 million pounds of honey was produced in 2015, with many beekeepers also transporting their colonies from field to field in order to help farmers with pollination.
According to Bees Matter, a Canadian organization dedicated to the education of honeybees, canola farmers rely on half of the honeybee colonies in the country to pollinate their crops, while apple and blueberry farmers cite the pollinators as critical to ongoing success.
The buzz in Europe
The plight of honeybees has become so dire that the European Union has stepped in and banned outdoor use of three of the five neonicotinoid pesticides linked to mass bee deaths. Meanwhile in France, government officials have banned all five of the pesticides, both on outdoor crop fields and inside greenhouses.
“Policy makers in other jurisdictions will be paying close attention to these decisions. We rely on both farmers and pollinators for the food we eat,” Nigel Raine at the University of Guelph told The Guardianof the decision. “Pesticide regulation is a balancing act between unintended consequences of their use for non-target organisms, including pollinators, and giving farmers the tools they need to control crop pests.”
Neonicotinoids, which were first created in the mid-1990s, attack an insect’s central nervous system and quickly became popular on flowering crops like fruit trees, canola, and vineyards. Not only does their use translate into an increased mortality rate for bees, but those insects that do survive have lower immune systems and are therefore more vulnerable to disease.
The question now is if these particular pesticides are banned, what will farmers use to replace them and will those methods be just as harmful?
“If these neonicotinoids are simply replaced by other similar compounds, then we will simply be going round in circles,” Dave Goulson of the Unicersity of Sussex also told The Guardian. “What is needed is a move towards truly sustainable farming.”
Parasites, disease… and a vaccination?
Pesticides certainly don’t help a honeybee’s ability to thrive, but neither do parasites and other deadly diseases, like the nasty bloodsucking parasites called varroa mites or the always perplexing problem of American foulbrood (AFB)—an infectious disease harming bee colonies worldwide.
While researchers (including those at Ontario’s University of Guelph) continue pondering the problem of varroa mites, it seems as though they may have found a solution to AFB. Testing on the first-ever insect vaccination was recently announced, which would be a game-changer not only for bees but for insects everywhere.
In typical vaccinations a dead or weakened version of a virus is injected into a person or animal, which in turn sparks the immune system into creating antibodies. But because insects don’t have antibodies, traditional inoculations are impossible.
However biologist Dalial Freitak at the University of Helsinki realized that when a moth was exposed to certain bacteria it was able to pass down a resistance to the next generation, and that made her wonder about the application for bees. So she and her coworker, Heli Salmela, got to work on using the bee protein vitellogenin to create a similar immune response in bees.
They found that in feeding a queen bee the foulbrood bacteria, the vitellogenin protein binds with pathogen molecules, which in turn helps her baby bees develop an immune system that’s able to recognize and protect them from AFB.
The team is calling the resulting vaccine, which is currently in the testing phase, PrimeBEE.
How to help
You don’t need a fancy lab or equipment to help honeybees thrive at home. In the spring, planting pollinator-friendly flowers that are native to your area will give bees a fighting chance to forage, especially if you plant in a sunny, bee-friendly area. It’s also helpful to set out a plate of water or a decorative rock where rain can collect so that bees can easily access it.
“Bees spend a lot of time gathering pollen and nectar from flowers, but they also need water,” entomologist Emily Kuhns told USA Today. “Bees also use water to regulate their temperature, help with digestion and to dilute stored honey.”
Meanwhile, if you’re a city-dweller and you believe the best way to help is by taking up beekeeping as a hobby, you might want to reconsider. The rise of urban beekeepers is doing more harm than good, since there isn’t enough nectar and pollen in these areas to feed so many bees.
“There’s a lot of enthusiastic people out there who really want to help the bees,” biologist Karin from the Laboratory of Apiculture and Social Insects at the University of Sussex told CBC. “But if you want to help elephants in Africa, you wouldn’t just put loads more elephants out there if the habitat wasn’t there to feed them.”
Sorry to be a buzzkill.