Wild bees may be in even more peril than managed honeybee colonies, and they are essential to food production.
Because bees pollinate or fertilize crops, entomologist Thomas Seeley called them “flying penises” for plants. Bees are essential for our food supply and our ecological health. According to a May 13 USDA report, summer losses of honeybee colonies now exceed winter losses, for first time. Honeybees not the only, and maybe not the biggest problem: wild bees are in even greater peril than managed honeybee colonies.
A new study from UC-San Diego added one more factor to the long list of bee-killers: a fungus called nosema ceranae. The fungus, varroa mites, neonicotinoid pesticides, and habitat loss add up to a four-alarm danger for not only commercial hives but also the hundreds of species of bumblebees and wild bees essential to growing food, fiber and flowers across the United States.
Each new study reveals more of the complex and interrelated dangers to bees, and reinforces the urgency of action to protect them and restore the habitat essential to their continued existence.
Habitat loss, driven by industrial agriculture and monocropping, is the biggest threat to pollinators. Like us, bees need to eat regularly. As Josh Dzieza wrote in Pacific Standard:
“[When] farmers began planting larger plots with one crop, the natural balance of pollination was distorted. A monoculture, as it’s called, can’t sustain all the wild insects it needs to pollinate it, because there’s nothing for the insects to eat when the main crop isn’t in bloom. …”
Not only are monocultures tough on bees, butterflies and birds, but corn is the toughest of all. Corn is wind-pollinated, so it doesn’t need or feed bees very well. The advent of genetically modified, Roundup-Ready corn brought huge quantities of herbicides, killing wildflowers and other weeds. Dzieza says that beekeepers call the Midwest a “corn desert.”
Colony collapse disorder, a mysterious killer, decimated honeybee colonies across the country in recent years. CCD alarmed both entomologists and the commercial beekeepers who truck colonies across the country in the rapidly growing pay-to-pollinate business. As scary as the deaths of honeybee colonies are, that’s peanuts compared to the devastation of wild bees. From Dzieza’s excellent article:
“Bumblebees have been disappearing since at least the 1990s. In 2009 and 2010, researchers visited locations near Carlinville, Illinois, where 120 years ago a naturalist studiously recorded which bugs visited what flowers. They found that almost half the bee species were gone, and only saw one American bumblebee after 447 hours of observation.”
In May, President Barack Obama announced a new “National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.” Recognizing the problem and proclaiming a commitment to solve it are good steps, but the strategy does not go far enough, fast enough for the health of bees.