The Un-BEE-lievable News

Channy Chhim, Environmental Science

Dean Fish, Geology

Chelsey Mullen, Pre-Veterinary Science

When people think about bees, they instantly think of being stung and maybe even allergies associated with them. However, cases of stinging tend to be from more aggressive species like hornets or wasps.These aggressive species tend to give bees a bad reputation, despite the fact that the honey bee is an integral part of our agricultural system. Honey bees not only produce honey, but they also pollinate, and therefore enable the procreation of, our fruit and flowering crops, which contributes to 40% of our food supply (Siegel and Betz, 2010). In 2010, honey bees aided the production of over $19 billion of crops in the United States alone, whereas all other pollinators combined contributed to the production of almost $10 billion of crops (US Fish and Wildlife, 2016). This means that honey bees alone are responsible for two thirds of animal pollinated crops. Wild populations of bees provide a free pollination service, which is worth $215 billion on a global scale (Goulson, Nicholls, Botías, & Rotheray, 2015). These crops not only include produce such as apples, squash, and almonds, but also commodities such as chocolate and coffee. Although the pollination services that bees offer are an integral aspect of the world’s agricultural production of insect pollinated crops, they go largely unrecognized. This is especially troubling now because bee populations are not only declining, but doing so at an alarming rate (Goulson, Nicholls, Botías, & Rotheray, 2015).

Over the past 50 years, honey bee colony numbers declined significantly and several colonies collapsed with what scientists coined as colony collapse disorder (CCD)(Goulson, Nicholls, Botías, & Rotheray, 2015). The rate of collapse increased in recent years. At the same time that bee populations are suffering, the increasingly efficient agricultural industry tripled the demand for pollinators (Goulson, Nicholls, Botías, & Rotheray, 2015). This causes concern for a future pollination crisis, in which crop yields may suffer due to a lack of bee pollination because there simply is not a large enough pollinator supply (Goulson, Nicholls, Botías, & Rotheray, 2015). If this scenario becomes a reality, the expense of importing foreign bees that may have foreign pathogens from abroad and artificial pollination of crops during flowering will increase food prices.

Like any other popular crime show, there are many suspects or factors that contribute to the death of a victim or victims. In the case of bees, synergistic effects may be the main causes of CCD in bee populations around the world. To this day, the cause of the CCD is still a mystery, but there is strong evidence behind what might be reducing bee populations. Scientists collectively target pathogens as a primary contributing factor to CCD (Chen et al., 2014). Pathogens are infectious agents that cause a disease or illness to its host (Casadevall & Pirofski 2014). The coinfection of viruses such as the Deformed Wing Virus (DWV) and Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV) have synergistic effects that might lead to CCD in bees, meaning that the coinfection of these viruses has more severe detrimental effects observed in CCD than the infection of just one of these viruses (Dainat, Gauthier, Neumann, Evans, & Chen, 2012). Therefore scientists consider pathogens to be a primary factor contributing to CCD (Goulson, Nicholls, Botías, & Rotheray, 2015). Another primary contributing factor to CCD is the use of pesticides in the agriculture of crops. To feed the billions of people inhabiting Earth, a task that is a challenge worldwide, farmers have developed more effective agricultural practices that produce more crops per acre. This has lead to an enormous increase in the use of pesticides on crops (Grace Communication Foundation, 2016) The use of pesticides has a direct harmful effect on bees when they try to pollinate the crop since pesticides not only kill their target, but they also harm key species that come in contact with the poison as well (Grace Communication Foundation, 2016). The lack of habitat and consistent flowering food source for bees on these large monocultural farmlands is also a culprit in the case of CCD.  Immediate action must be taken to save the bees. The collapse of bee populations is due to the synergistic effects of the lack of natural bee habitat, infective pathogens, and the use of pesticides on flowering crops. Since the collapse is due to the interactions of these factors, it can be combatted by increasing natural bee habitats on crop land, encouraging beekeepers to treat for pathogens, and enforcing stricter regulations on the application of pesticides.

The monocultural trend in agriculture, or the trend to farm just one type of crop or plant on a plot of land, and decrease of natural bee habitats has been negatively impacting bee populations over the last several decades. Bees need flowers for their nectar and pollen in addition to nesting sites to lay their eggs and make honey (Goulson, Nicholls, Botías, & Rotheray, 2015). Over the past couple centuries, however, natural country sides have transformed into industrial farmland, and undisturbed land and wildflowers are far less frequent. In the United Kingdom about 97% of their diverse flowering grasslands disappeared in the 20th century, which has decreased the range particularly of bumblebees (Goulson, Nicholls, Botías, & Rotheray, 2015). This is like trying to fit all of the fans that bought tickets to a sold out Taylor Swift concert at Fenway Park into the House of Blues. There’s no way that over 37,000 fans will fit into a small venue about a fifteenth of the size. Instead, fewer fans will go to the concert, and the ones that don’t fit in the venue will go home disgruntled without fulfilling their “Wildest Dreams” of watching Taylor Swift live. Similarly, there’s no way that the former, larger populations of honey bees will fit on just 3% of their original habitat range, so the ones that do not fit or cannot find adequate resources will not survive, and will thus perish. Similar habitat reductions have occurred in the United States as well with negative implications to the range of bumblebees (Goulson, Nicholls, Botías, & Rotheray, 2015). Lack of sufficient habitat alone is not the only culprit working in the case of CCD.

Viral infections contribute to the massive declines in bee populations. Scientists speculate over the possible parasites and viruses that associate directly with the declining bee populations. Experts once considered IAPV to be the solitary factor contributing to CCD, but it turns out that the synergistic effects of pathogenic infections, including Varroa destructor and DWV, also led to the massive decline in bee populations in the United States and Europe (Dainat, 2012).

Chen et al. (2014) linked IAPV, an RNA virus first identified in 2004, to colony losses. When scientists first discovered that an RNA virus infected bees, it was the first lead in the case of CCD, which raised public awareness to the increasing decline of bee populations (Dainat, Gauthier, Neumann, Evans, & Chen, 2012). The Varroa destructor mite, one of the contributing pathogens causing CCD, is a parasitic mite that infests bee colonies. The mite serves as a vector to bee viruses, leading to the inevitable death of a hard worker bee, chosen as the mite’s host (Chen et al., 2014). DWV is a common virus that kills billions of bees around the world, and Chen et al. (2014) demonstrates that a combination of DWV infection and an infestation of the Varroa destructor mites in bee colonies strongly correlates to even higher mortality rates in bee populations. Therefore, it is clear that the IAPV, DWV, and Varroa destructor play significant roles in contributing to CCD since they all negatively affect bee colonies and harm bee populations. The stressors on bees have led to a huge decline in bee populations, and the impact may be irreversible unless appropriate action is taken to save the bees. These pathogens, however, are not yet the final perpetrator in the case of CCD in bee populations.

Much like the pathogens that ravage bee populations, pesticides also negatively impact bee populations either directly by reducing their numbers or indirectly by threatening their survival. A direct case of this can be seen in the documentary film Queen of the Sun: What Are The Bees Telling Us? where dusting crops caused pesticides to drift and impact the neighboring bee hives (Betz & Siegel, 2010). The pesticides that were dispersed over the neighboring field impacting the surrounding area due to proximity, disrupted the property of someone else. It isn’t just this one isolated case, but studies like Van der Zee, Gray, Pisa, & de Rijk (2015) and Bernauer, Gaines-Day, & Steffan (2015) have shown that interactions of pesticides can be lethal to bee populations.

These studies have looked at various types of pesticides, but they are unable to identify a singular prominent pesticide that is the primary cause. Therefore, they look at all pesticides linked to this decline. Van der Zee, Gray, Pisa, & de Rijk (2015) point to acetamiprid and thiacloprid as a links to population decline in bees. They limited their view to a few pesticides, and they found that the presence of acetamiprid and thiacloprid together in the hives’ matrices correlated with a much higher rate of bee mortality in the winter season than those hives without the presence of these chemicals. The hives with acetamiprid showed a slightly higher chance of population losses than those without because of food contamination. Those hives with thiacloprid showed greater population losses too, and these losses jumped to significantly when the hives contained both chemicals (Van der Zee, Gray, Pisa, & de Rijk, 2015). Other studies, like that of Bernauer, Gaines-Day, & Steffan (2015), looked at the treatment of hives directly. The study looked at the effects of chlorothalonil, a fungicide, on the chemically-treated hives in their experiment. They showed that chlorothalonil-treated hives produced less than a third as many workers, less than half the bee biomass, and queens with half the body mass (Van der Zee, Gray, Pisa, & de Rijk, 2015). On their own, these pesticides do moderate damage to bee populations, but when added in combination, their synergistic effects cause significant damage to  beehives and populations too.

Some farmers are not willing to give up their land so that bees can naturally inhabit the surrounding area. The loss of natural habitat can be combatted by subsidizing farmers who allocate a piece of their land to creating this natural habitat for bees. This would be similar to a law about allocating for the preservation of environmentally sensitive land through the USDA (USDA Farm Service Agency). This would be enforced by the USDA and would be an incentive to farmers to give a portion of their land to help this issue for compensation and the pollination from the bees for their crops. By subsidizing the farmers, portions of their farmland would be committed to providing habitat for bees.

The Central Valley of California has 600,000 acres devoted solely to farming almond trees. In order for the almond trees to be productive, all of the flowers on all the trees need to be pollinated. These trees provide a great food supply to bees for 2-3 weeks out of the year. The other 50 weeks that the trees aren’t in bloom, however, the bees have no food for 600,000 acres, roughly the size of Maui, Hawaii. Due to this monoculture, essentially no bees settled here so the farmers had to import bees from Australia (Siegel and Betz, 2010). These hundreds of thousands of acres cannot naturally sustain a bee population. In addition to the industrialization of agriculture, urbanization has diminished and fragmented natural habitat for bees to occupy. Ideally, 306 acres of land dedicated for native prairie and pollinator habitat paid for by state or federal money (MPRNews, 2015). Bees need an area to nest so the habitat from land left for natural vegetation to grow allows bees to inhabit them. The habitat should be free from pesticides and access to a food supply for the bees.

Beekeepers with over 5 colonies ought to receive a $2.50 subsidy per bee colony that they treat in the spring and the fall for existing Varroa mites. Although some of the United States’ largest commercial beekeepers have tens of thousands of beehives, such as Brett Adee from Adee Honey Farms with 60,000 hives (Bond, Plattner, & Hunt, 2014), most commercial beekeepers are sideline beekeepers that keep bees as a supplemental income. These beekeepers may have as many as 300 colonies (Wikipedia, 2016), which would reward them with approximately $750 if they treat all of their colonies for Varroa mites. Most US beekeepers, however keep bees simply to make honey as a hobby, and they have less than 25 hives (National Honey Board, 2016). These beekeepers would be rewarded with a $62.50 subsidy at most for spring and fall treatments of existing Varroa mites in their hives. The money for subsidies could come from a minor increase in federal tax dollars. With 115,000 to 125,000 beekeepers in the United States (National Honey Board, 2016), if 5% of them are high producing beekeepers with 50,000 colonies, 35% are sideline beekeepers with 300 colonies, and 60% are hobbyists with 25 colonies, this program would cost the federal government $786 million dollars a year. This cost would be covered by a $12.90 tax increase to the 122 million federal taxpayers in the USA (, 2013).

There are several affordable treatments for Varroa mites. Drone combs and screen bottoms added to colonies can help to control Varroa infestations and their associated viral infections of bee colonies. These treatments range from just $4-$27 a colony. Varroa mites have an affinity for drone brood, so by adding couple frames of drone combs per colony at approximately $3.45 a comb (Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, 2016, p53), the mites will go inside and be sealed inside the comb by the worker bees. Then to kill the mites, the beekeepers just remove the frames filled with trapped mites, and put them in a freezer for 1-2 days (Berry, 2015). In colonies that have a screen bottom, the mites may fall through the screen and decrease the population of mites in the colony (Berry, 2015). These bottom boards cost approximately $21.50 each, and the gridded sheets that fit into the board to help count the Varroa load cost $5.95 each (Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, 2016, p53). Chemical treatments exist too, such as Apistan and Api Life VAR. The active ingredient in Apistan strips is fluvalinate, which is not toxic to honey bees, but affects the nervous system of the mites. A couple strips are put in a colony, and the drug is distributed by contact with the bees and mites (Rudloff, 2016). Api Life VAR uses thymol, which is a softer chemical than fluvalinate. Evaporative sachets with the thymol are placed on the hive and the vapor kills the mites (Brushy Mountain Bee Farm). Apistan strips are only about $3.30 a strip (Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, 2016, p50) and Api Life VAR is about $4 per sachet (Brushy Mountain Bee Farm, 2016, p51).

Although some civilians may not like the increase of federal spending and the use of tax dollars to reward beekeepers for treating against Varroa mites, the treatment of these mites is vital because they not only cause bee populations to suffer declines, but they also transmit detrimental viruses to the bees such as DWV and IAPV. If bee populations continue to suffer and we may face a pollination crisis in which agricultural farms are without the free pollination services of honey bees, crop yields may plummet. To cover this loss, farmers will have to pay for artificial pollination services to attain profitable yields. Therefore grocery prices will increase for food items that contain bee-pollinated ingredients in order for crop farmers to at least break even or make a profit. By paying a minor tax increase of approximately $12.90 a year to encourage the treatment of Varroa mites, we could prevent a pollination crisis that would limit the availability of, or increase the monetary value of groceries the nation’s groceries.

Pesticides are an integral part of the farming industry because they help to ensure fruitful harvests and keep profit margins high. The limiting of pesticides may be met with some resistance by the farming industry. It is important to remember that we are not proposing to eliminate all pesticides, only those shown to be harmful to bee populations will be banned such as the fungicide, chlorothalonil, studied in Bernauer et al. (2015), and thiacloprid, studied in Van der Zee et al. (2015). Crop dusting is a shotgun approach to fixing the problem of applying pesticides, it is less time consuming and wider reaching, which is a financial benefit. However, this economic win is a responsibility failure. At the very least the applications should be limited so dustings can not be done, or done in a safer manner, in order to protect the surrounding environment. Also, when using pesticides on crops, do this during times when bees are inactive preferably around night time which would be enforced by the USDA. Again this is not to say eliminating all pesticides, but instead banning certain pesticides from use like thiacloprid or at least banning certain combinations of them. While it might be more costly to change application methods it would be cheaper and safer in the long run to make this change now as if bees are continually affected by pesticides in addition to everything else, it would mean replacing the pollination they provide which would be costly.

Bees play a critical role in agriculture and in the procreation of flowering plants to benefit society and their free pollination service worth hundreds of billions of dollars is irreplaceable. The synergism of pesticide poisoning, pathogenic infections by Varroa mites and viruses like DWV and IAPV, and the lack of a diverse and consistent flowering habitat for bees on agricultural land is causing the drastic increase of collapse of bee populations. It is up to us to encourage the use alternative pesticides that do not harm bees and to use pesticides sparingly so as to not poison our beloved bees. Additionally, it is the responsible obligation and humane thing to treat our stocks of bees against the pathogens that infect them. Farmers should keep in mind too that it is in their best interest to preserve or create natural bee habitats on their agricultural land so as to attract and maintain a consistent bee population to pollinate their crops for a fruitful harvest and to keep up with their ever-growing production demands. It is within our hands to fight the causes of CCD, and with appropriate action, we can save the bees.

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Goulson, D., Nicholls, E., Botías, C., & Rotheray, E. L. (2015). Bee declines driven by combined stress from parasites, pesticides, and lack of flowers. Science, 347(6229), 1435-1255957-9. doi:10.1126/science.1255957

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One Comment

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