Here’s the good news: Our honeybees aren’t really in trouble.
On October 3, 2016, bees were added to the list of endangered American species for the first time. That announcement capped 10 years of bee-related anxiety; since 2006, we’ve been warned that our honeybee population is on the brink of collapse, and ready to take down our food supply with it. At the time, colony collapse disorder (CCD), a mysterious syndrome that still has no clear cure, was a scourge ripping through the hives of America’s bees.
But the truth is that, in 2016, the honeybees in our hives are doing just fine. In fact, their population has been steadily increasing, and reports of CCD are declining. Beekeeping remains a multi-million dollar industry, and our food supply is healthy. How can this be(e)?
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We can blame misleading reporting for most of the confusion. For starters, the bees added to the list of endangered American species were seven types of yellow-faced bees native to Hawaii. But the bees we keep for honey, wax, and pollination services are an imported species known as the European honeybee, Apis mellifera. This species did not originate in America, and it is most emphatically not on the endangered species list. In fact, it’s likely the most populous bee species on Earth.
These domesticated honeybees are currently safe from catastrophe. After all, they have our vested interest on their side; no matter how sick the Apis mellifera may get, intensive human management will ensure their survival. Just look at our canine friend the pug, a breed kept alive by humans despite their twisted spines, collapsing tracheas, and inflamed brains, all in the name of pug ‘cuteness.’
With present-day bee health in such a promising state, you’d think that unraveling the cause of CCD and the 2006 population collapse wouldn’t be all that important— but I’d argue that it’s vital.
CCD itself is a confusing phenomenon. While 2006 marked the first time the name “Colony Collapse Disorder” was applied, other names were used in previous years, such as “fall dwindle disease” or “disappearing disease.” Essentially, it’s not so much a disease as a behavioral disorder, wherein most or all of the adult bee population permanently deserts the hive, abandoning their eggs, larvae, and food supply. The sudden spike in bee losses circa 2006 was the beginning of a sustained bee panic, with beekeepers reporting CCD-related population declines of anywhere from 30 to 90 percent.
Initially, researchers looked for some parasite or infection. What they found only deepened the mystery: Bees removed from dwindling hives had a myriad of problems, ranging from mites to fungus to mysterious objects floating in their rectums. Some bees were so broken that researchers initially identified tissue collected from live test insects as belonging to decaying ones. The fact that no single ailment caused all the problems made scientists suspect that CCD had its roots in autoimmune suppression. In other words, the bees were too weak to fight off infection.
But what could have caused this immune system breakdown?
A primary reason behind immune system failure—for us and all other creatures—is stress. In this respect, concerned beekeepers might have exacerbated the problem. Upon detecting signs of CCD, many beekeepers did two things that bees find very stressful: They artificially ‘split’ their colonies (dividing up the adult bees of one hive and seeding one group with a new queen), and they transported their colonies from place to place during yearly pollination circuits.
Of course, beekeepers have been splitting and moving their colonies for yearly pollination circuits long before the increase in CCD. And problems with the immune system don’t explain all of CCD—immune issues explain why bees are dying, but not why they abandoned their hives. The disappearance of most or all of the bees implied that there was some deeper issue with their actual behavior. A theory soon surfaced; many researchers suspected that the bees suffered from brain damage.
A number of causes for the brain damage were suggested, from inbreeding depression to electromagnetic interference from cell phone towers. The most recent damning evidence suggests that a new group of widely-used pesticides called neonicotenoids may be wreaking havoc on bee brains. Not just that, but low levels of these chemicals may also contribute to weakened bee immune systems. On their own, neonicotenoids may not cause CCD, but mixed with all the other stressors faced by modern honey bees, they may serve as a catalyst for collapse.
The current bee bounce-back is happening in spite of the fact that neonicotenoid use is still prevalent in the United States. This could be due to the fact that beekeepers are being more aggressive in treating infections and providing their bees with proper nutrition, or it could be that other factors we simply didn’t know about have now stopped affecting the bees. Or it could be, as the pesticide companies have always insisted, that neonicotenoids never posed a problem at all! In the end, we are left with an unsatisfactory resolution; there is no smoking gun when it comes to CCD.
Now, for the very bad news.
Our domestic bees may be doing just fine, but we can’t just sweep the effect CCD had on them underneath the rug. Other species of pollinators do not have the same kind of protection, and now an estimated 40 percent of invertebrate pollinators worldwide are considered at risk for extinction. That’s a real problem for us humans. Unlike domestic bees, our understanding of wild pollinators is far less clear; we’re still learning about the role they play in healthy crop growth.
Indeed, the entire reason that bees are carted across state lines as on-call pollinators is partly because huge native populations have already been lost. While the interaction between our modern farming practices and native pollinator species is currently understudied, preliminary evidence suggests that crop yields are better when the crop is planted near diverse populations of wild plants—and by proxy, their pollinators.
Native pollinator loss has implications beyond our own food supply. Specialized relationships exist between many pollinator species and their plant of choice. Tomato plants, for example, rely on ‘buzz pollination,’ a behavior specific to bumblebees. Often, if one partner in these intimate relationships is lost, so is the other, doubling the loss in diversity. In other words, one disruption can quickly compound, sending shockwaves throughout the natural world.
So while it’s unlikely that domestic honeybees will disappear anytime soon, the threat of disorder remains. For one, the true nature of colony collapse is still shrouded in mystery. And though the Apis mellifera is safe from catastrophe, the same cannot be said for its wild half-sisters and second cousins. Studying disorder in our domestic bees can help us understand what impact our activity can have on other invertebrates, many of whom—like the Hawaiian yellow-faced bees—are dwindling away before we really get a chance to know them.