Declining Number of Bees Affects Other Animals, Human Health
Jul 01, 2017 10:27PM
● By Vanessa Orr
It’s hard to imagine how something as small as a honeybee can play such a large part in the survival of other species, but the fact is, those little insects that you sometimes swat away each summer are necessary for the pollination of more than 85 percent of the world’s flowering plants, including two-thirds of the world’s crop species.
According to the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, an international nonprofit that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitats, 25 percent of birds and mammals, including grizzly bears, use the fruit and seed that results from insect pollination as a major part of their diets. So when the number of bees begins to decrease, it affects more than just a single species—it affects all of us.
“There is a lot of data in the U.S. as well as in Europe showing strong evidence that bee populations in general are declining, and that some species have not only declined, but have gone extinct,” explained Maryann Frazier, retired senior extension associate, Penn State University. “This is not just honeybees, but bees in general, and not just in the U.S. and Europe, but around the world.”
While beekeepers have been collecting data on insect populations for many years, very detailed numbers in terms of losses have been kept for the past 12 years. “Over winter, which is the most vulnerable time for bees, we’re seeing a 30 percent loss,” said Frazier. “Over the last couple of years, there have also been surveys looking at losses over the summer, and that number is closer to 40 percent. This is pretty significant in that the acceptable level is considered to be about 15 percent.”
Frazier added that this past year did see an improvement in that number to 23 percent; a fact that has researchers excited, though some credit the year’s mild winter to better bee population numbers. In Pennsylvania, however, the population numbers showed higher losses than average.
There are a variety of reasons why bees are disappearing, according to Frazier. “We call it the Four P’s: parasites, pathogens, poor nutrition and pesticides,” she explained.
“Parasites include a mite that was introduced here in the late 80s and that transmits pathogens, or diseases,” she continued. “A lot of farmers and homeowners are using herbicides, which create a lack of diversity in plants for pollinators—bees actually make use of weeds, like dandelion and clover, as a good source of nectar and pollen. And many bees fall victim to the overuse of pesticides.”
While some people may prefer a perfect lawn to increased numbers of pollinators, this loss of bees affects how we live, including what we eat. “Bees are a really important pollinator for fruit and vegetable crops, as well as seed and nut crops,” said Frazier. “The almond crop, for example, is 100 percent dependent on the bee population.”
These insects are so important to agriculture, in fact, that the economic value of native pollinators is estimated to be approximately $3 billion per year in the United States alone.
So what can be done to bring back bees? There are a number of fairly easy solutions that consumers, as well as those who grow lawns and crops, can do.
“A lot of people are advocating for the reduced use of pesticides in agricultural systems, because it is not only harmful to bees and birds, but to humans,” said Frazier. “Integrated pest control management is another option; using a lot of different technologies instead of pesticides, which should only be used as a last resort.
“From a consumer point of view, people need to be willing to accept more ‘damage’ to their fruits and vegetables as a result of using fewer pesticides,” she added. “They can also buy local honey—beekeepers are having a rough time, and by supporting them, you support bees. People can make a big impact by voting with their dollars.”
Homeowners also need to give up on the idea of the ‘ultimate’ green lawn. “Have some dandelions in your yard, and make a point of planting for pollinators by using bee-friendly plants,” said Frazier.
“Bees are only part of the bigger picture,” she added, noting that recent studies have also cited a decline in bird populations. “It’s an important issue—not only should we all pay attention for the sake of bee, insect, bird and animal populations, but for our own health.”
WANT TO LEARN MORE? The Center for Pollinator Research at Penn State University:www.ento.psu.edu/pollinators
Bee Informed Partnership: www.beeinformed.org
Xerces Society: www.xerces.org
North American Pollinator Protection Campaign: www.pollinator.org/nappc