Buzzkill

Buzzkill

Today's post is by Prabarna Ganguly, a Ph.D. student in the Psychology Department at Northeastern University. Thanks again, Prabarna!

Our favorite flying pollinators are dying. If you are unaware of the state of these tragic affairs, your reaction might be…

Yes, bees. There has been a nationwide, nay, worldwide attempt to explain why bees are dying. Some are almost spot on. 

Others? Yeah, not so much.

So, what’s going on? Why are our friendly, buzzing neighbors in danger? Well, it all begins with a love story between busy little worker bees and sweet smelling flowers. We refer to this very special love affair as pollination. The existence of so many of the prettiest smelling flowers depends on their friendship with these busy little bees. Since plants cannot walk and reproduce sexually, many have evolved to be mellitophilous meaning they are especially attractive to bees. Bees, as it happens, are one of the best and well known pollinators. 

As the image above explains, foraging bees, in search of nectar (which later becomes honey), brush their fuzzy little bodies against a flower’s stamen (male pollen), until they’re thoroughly covered in the powder. The bees then move to another flower of the same type, and the male pollen sticks to the female part of the flower (pistil), ultimately leading to a new generation of baby bloomers. This miraculous process is referred to as cross-pollination.

Per usual, humans found a way to harness the fruits (literally) of this coevolved friendship. Farmers around the world use native bees as crop pollinators. Today, 70% of the world’s most popular produce (including all the tastiest samplings of: apples, almonds, cucumber, cantaloupes, and pumpkins), is made available to us thanks to the diligence of worker bees. Their efforts generate more than $15 billion dollars for the US economy, making bees agriculture’s most powerful ally. Without the diverse wild bee population, there would be a disastrous reduction in pollen transfer between the same plant species. This would be a devastating loss for crop production, and would ultimately lead to the extinction of hundreds of flowering plants. Imagine what life would be like without pumpkins on Halloween!!! (No, don’t do that, it’s too painful).

Moving on from that depressing thought, native bee populations are going AWOL (not really, they’re just dying). Since 2006, bees have been plagued with colony collapse disorder (CCD) aka there are colonies with no adult bees and no visible bodies, but with a live queen bee and some young bees. What’s worse, more than 50% of native bees have disappeared in Midwestern and Western states within the last century. Overall bee numbers are riding so low that pollinating almonds requires over 60% of the nation’s surviving bee colonies! Seriously, appreciate those almonds you've been crunchin’ on.   

For those who are afraid of losing their honey, don’t worry, this decline does not include honeybees. Apis mellifera (or the European honeybee) is the most common bee species in the US, but, like the first pilgrims or Abba, these bees were brought over from Europe. Honeybees have been distributed globally and become domesticated. Happy for us (and for them, I suppose), this means honeybees are not under dire threat of extinction. 

So the question remains, why are they dying? And what can we do to change this? Well, the answer is not as clear-cut as we’d like it to be. If they were only dying because of pesticide use, it would be so easy to resolve! But, alas, bees got 99 problems and pesticides are only one of them. Honestly, bee life is complicated, much like our human lives, and so are the reasons for their massive apocalyptic decline.

Feast your hungry eyes on some current reasons for bee decline:

  • Pesticides
  • Habitat destruction
  • Drought
  • Parasites (tracheal mite and varroa mite)
  • Poor nutrition (loss of flowering plants as a food source)
  • Other various fungi and parasites

These threats combine to create the ultimate bee potion of doom. All are equally responsible, equally deadly. In 2013, the European Commission enforced temporary bans against ‘neonicorticoid’ insecticides. Two years later, the Obama administration released a novel action plan calling to restore bee-friendly habitats by planting a ton of wildflowers. Burt’s Bees, a go-to company for lip care, decided to get rid of the b’s and had a ig idea for saving ees. But ultimately, an all-encompassing guidebook (AKA bee-saving Bible) that includes the environmental and economic drivers of bee-loss will be the best bet for saving our social compatriots and making Earth a buzz-friendly planet again!  

To know more about other bee-saving initiatives, check this

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