The Plight of the Honeybee

During the time that we have spent in Puerto Rico so far, I’ve been able to understand a lot of the problems that they face here as well as identify, to a greater extent, some of the problems that we face back in Illinois.
One of the coolest things so far on the trip has been the sheer amount of different plant species here in Puerto Rico. We have seen plenty of fruit trees, tons of woody shrubs, various types of palms, and of course, a massive number of different flowers. The sheer amount of biodiversity on the island is astounding.
In Illinois, while we don’t have nearly as many species of flora that PR has, we have a large amount and are one of the major agricultural producers in the country. We grow everything from corn to peaches, and all of it wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for a little flying insect called the honeybee. Bees play an incredibly vital role in countries all around the world and especially in places like Illinois which rely of them for the production of plenty of crops which our state uses for both food and sale. While the reduction in the population of honeybees hasn’t been too bad in Puerto Rico it is a very pressing and seldom talked about issue facing Illinois and much of the continental United States.
I think it’s important to first introduce what got me into learning about bees in the first place. A few years ago, my mom took some classes at the local community college and picked up beekeeping as a way to destress and also help the environment. She always asked for my brother and I’s help with it. We would prepare the bins that the frames went into, help paint the hive and hand her things while she was working in the hive. She told us all about the bees and just how cool the little creatures are. They are very precise creatures and some of the smartest insects in the planet. She also alerted us of the plight that the bees have faced in recent years regarding colony collapse. Hearing all of this, I began to research more into the bees and learned plenty of very interesting things about them. In my opinion, the problem of dying honey bees may be one of the most important of our generation. It affects everyone on Earth.
In the time between 1985 and 1997 there was a 57% decline in the amount of bee colonies in the US. Part of this decimation of the population had to do with the application of various pesticides by farmers and homeowners (Richard). Each year bee populations continued to face losses until in 2005 when they faced one of the worst losses in decades. California is one of the largest almond producers in the world and they lost so many of their bee colonies that the US opened its borders to other countries to ship more bees into the states. It was the first time that bees had to be shipped in from other countries in over 50 years (Richard). As honeybees are responsible for over 1/3 of the food that we eat, the problem of colony collapse disorder was finally brought into limelight and the loss of bees was finally brought up in discussion. Colony collapse disorder or CCD occurs when “the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen, plenty of food and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees and the queen” (EPA). CCD has been long thought to be the major problem of bee endangerment but in recent years it has subsided. The amount of bee colonies that don’t survive through the winter are still high though.
A major problem that the bees also face is due to intruders and parasites into the hive. Something called the Varroa mite has been particularly deadly to the bee colonies across the country and plays a key role in CCD. In fact, my mom has found that the varroa mites have led to the deaths of some of her hives over the year. The varroa mites attach onto the bees and eventually kill them. They give the bees a disease called Varroosis and suck the blood of the bees and the bee pupa. This shortens lifespans of the bees and also leads to defects in the newly developed bees such as missing limbs and deformed wings (Bessin).
Although bees have been officially declared endangered a few weeks ago, there is still precious time to reverse their path towards demise. Researchers have begun looking at wild bees to understand how they have been able to withstand attacks from various parasites like the varroa mite. One of the major reasons why the parasites have been so deadly to bee colonies is the proximity between colonies. In nature, colonies are around a half mile away, so when one hive is faced with a parasite, the parasite has a lot of trouble spreading out after killing the colony (Gebreyes). The reason why the parasites are so deadly to cultured bees is because the hives are located very close to each other which greatly increases how fast parasites can move from colony to colony. An easy solution to this would be to increase the space between each hive. This wouldn’t have to be a great distance like a half mile. If the hives were all separated by say 20 feet, it would greatly increase the amount of time that the parasite would take to spread and allow the bee populations to begin to grow back and increase before the parasites could claim more colonies.
In order to see if this option does in fact provide satisfying results, a basic test using 4-6 bee hives could be performed. As a control group for the experiment, put two hives a foot away (about how far hives are from each other in a traditional setting) from each other and introduce varroa mites into one of them. Then measure the amount of time it takes for the varroa mites to spread to the second hive. Repeat this same test but increase the amount of space between the hives by 5 feet, then 10 feet, then 20 feet, etc. If the time does in fact increase by a great enough factor, then this technique to deal with parasitic colonies can be enacted and will hopefully play a role in protecting the future of our honeybees.
This does come with some drawbacks though. While it provides a temporary solution to the problem at hand, it is just slowing down the inevitable. It may take longer for the parasites to travel between colony but they will still get there at some point. In addition, this option could also introduce the other problem of exposing the bees to more pesticides when the distance from the chemical safe location in the field is increased. My mom and I have seen firsthand how fertilizers and pesticides can affect bees. Moving the bees affects their flight path and could introduce them to chemicals that they otherwise wouldn’t have been exposed to. We lost a colony last year because our neighbors sprayed a large amount of pesticides on the flowers that were right in the flightpath of one of our hives. They had most likely collected most of their pollen from those flowers and the effects of the pesticides were devastating to both the pests and the pollinators. It is important to look at every option in order to give the bees the best chance of thriving and ensuring the future of our food supply.
The other option that is also looking very feasible goes into the genetics of the wild bees compared to the cultured colonies. In other words, asking what chemically makes the wild bees less susceptible to various parasitic attacks. By doing so, the gene for parasitic tolerance can be isolated and we can breed bees that can better combat the diseases spread by the varroa mites and other parasites. To test this, one could breed cultured bees with the gene that helps with parasites and introduce a parasite into a colony of the selectively bred bees. The number of surviving bees after a specified amount of time could then be counted and compared to a hive of standard bees (without the special gene) that has also been exposed to the parasite. The number of survivors could then be compared and from there, a consensus as to the success of the selective breeding can be created. This option also represents a risk because we don’t know how the parasites will adapt and it could lead them to become stronger than before. That’s the problem with genetics, it often yields satisfactory results at first but eventually it leads to the strengthening of the threat they were created to protect against. This was seen with the Round Up ready plants from a couple years ago, eventually, the weeds adapted to favor the strongest of the species and many were able to survive the round up and mooch more nutrients from the plants compared to before the round up plants were created. Eventually, the weeds became “super-weeds” (Wilkerson/Chow). What’s to say that changing the genetics of the bees won’t develop super parasites?
While these are just two options to begin solving the problem of the disappearing bees, many more options are still being looked at. It’s important that people start understanding the true severity of this problem. Many places in the world already face food shortages. Imagine reducing the number of food they have by 1/3, it would lead to massive amounts of starvation around the world. States like Illinois have been hit particularly hard by this issue because of how much we produce in terms of both food and feed in the country. As the problem begins to spread, it will surely be felt by more than just the producers in our country. By creating change today, and doing everything in our power to reduce this problem, we can ensure food security for the future of both our state, our country, and the world.

Bibliography:

Richard, Michael Graham. “Who Is Killing Nature’s Precious Bees?”TreeHugger. N.p., 15 Aug. 2006. Web. 16 Jan. 2017.
“Colony Collapse Disorder.” EPA. Environmental Protection Agency, 16 Sept. 2016. Web. 16 Jan. 2017.
Bessin, Ric. “Varroa Mites Infesting Honey Bee Colonies.” Varroa Mites Infesting Honey Bee Colonies | Entomology. N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Jan. 2017.
Gebreyes, Rahel. “Finally, Some Good News About the Future of Bees.” The Huffington Post. N.p., 3 June 2016. Web. 16 Jan. 2017.
Wilkerson, Jordan, and Brian Chow. “Why Roundup Ready Crops Have Lost Their Allure.” Science in the News. N.p., 12 May 2016. Web. 16 Jan. 2017.

One thought on “The Plight of the Honeybee

  1. My uncle is a beekeeper, so I have also heard a lot recently from him about concerns with the bee colonies that he manages. Bees are possibly the most important insect on this planet and also one of the most under appreciated. A lot of people don’t even realize that the bees are in danger, and if they do, not everyone realizes what the consequences of a world without bees would be. Food shortages would definitely be a huge problem unless scientists managed to find a way to pollinate plants without bees, which seems unlikely. You also raised an important concern about genetic modification when you talked about the possibility of creating superviruses or superpests that would continue to threaten the bee population. There is always that concern when you mess with genetics whether you will be hurting or helping the situation in the long run. I’m not completely sure whether or not we should put a segment about bees into our open house booth or not, but while we are talking about some of the biodiversity in Illinois it would definitely be worthwhile to mention them and spread more awareness to their plight.