Show Me the Honey: Plight of the Humble Bee
Small changes, big impact – see how the humble bee can change the world
When you think of bees, what comes to mind? Your favorite lip balm? Liquid gold on your pancakes? Faux-German packaged ice-cream? Perhaps you thought of little, black-and-yellow jobs buzzing around during the summer. Bees, in all their buzzing glory, have been hit hard by climate change, an impact that translates to us humans more directly than at first glance.
Bees are a major constituent of animal pollinators which support the pollination and yield production of 70% of crop species worldwide (1). More specifically, pollination-dependent agriculture in the US drives tremendous economic value, ranging from $14 – $23 billion, with cascading impacts on industrial sectors ranging from $10 – $21 billion (2).
Bees have long been considered a keystone species which hold entire ecosystems together. Their ability to pollinate a variety of plant species ensures genetic variation and growth from the literal ground up. While several companies have capitalized on our buzzing friends, the farmer cooperatives on the front lines of beekeeping have been directly exposed to the impact of the declining health of bee colonies.
Climate change has negatively impacted bee populations with large numbers of colonies dying off each year (3).
While a whole host of factors have led to a decline in bee populations, two are particularly salient with regards to climate change:
- Pollination Season: Climate change impacts the seasonal signal of spring. Warm temperatures trigger plants to flower and pollinators to begin work. But global warming has caused mild winters and the earlier onset of spring (4). The result is plants flowering earlier but pollinators have yet to catch up (5). This mismatch – the months of greatest pollinator activity occur after peak plant flowering – cuts both ways, impeding plant reproduction by limiting pollination and preventing bees from building and storing food for the hive, resulting in starved colonies. Malnourished colonies produce less honey and have a decreased likelihood of surviving through the next winter.
- Infection: Bees get sick too. Changing temperatures mean that the pests and pathogens which impact bees have a longer lifespan and active season, and can therefore, decrease bee colony survivability (6). In particular, species of parasitic mites, viruses, and microsporidia agents have been identified as the primary offenders (7)
Beekeeping cooperatives have struggled to catch up. Since the mid-2000s, keepers have seen a 30% – 45% year-over-year decline in honey bee colonies (8, 9). This dramatic decrease trouble small farmers and big agriculture alike, spurring even President Obama to announce his program to promote pollinator health in 2015. To counter colony die-offs, farmers and keepers split hives each year in hopes of redistributing remaining bees into pastures that have the highest likelihood of supporting large colonies. Additionally, keepers have deployed pesticides, medications, and anti-parasitic chemical regimens to maximize the probability that hives survive into the next season. Chemical counter measures have a dual effect in that active ingredients often negatively impact colony health (10). Furthermore, the pesticides and herbicides used on crops weaken the bee’s ability to fight off infection. For the farmer, colony maintenance has increased in cost without a guarantee of healthy hives. In short, higher risk of investment has not been matched with a commensurate reward – keepers are simply hoping to maintain current colony levels and stop colony collapse. Decreasing colony counts also threaten crop yields. The $2 billion almond farming industry in California alone relies on more than 1 million bees for pollination (11). In the end, these expensive tactics are simply putting a band aid on the fundamental causes which are rooted in the environment and climate.
To drastically alter the equation for beekeepers, new approaches should be considered:
- Genetic Modification: The food industry has already seen the rise of genetically modified fish (12, 13) and crops (14, 15) which hold potential for providing foodstuffs for a rapidly increasing population. The ability to genetically modify bees and their target plants to optimize for pollination and pathogen resistance would help to increase colony survivability.
- Cross-breeding: The majority of honey bees in industrial production belong to the species Apis mellifera. Studies have shown that other subspecies have shown resistance to mites and viruses (16). Introducing anti-pest bees alongside at-risk colonies may help transfer genes that may help improve colony resilience.
- Pollinator Diversification: While bees are the most prolific pollinators, butterflies and bats also contribute to crop pollination. Adopting new animal pollinators could also assuage the seasonality gaps with bees. However, cultivating colonies of alternative pollinators large enough to service industrial-scale farms requires high upfront investment and high cost in managing different pollinator species.
Solving colony collapse requires a multi-pronged approach from a range of organizations. Ultimately, the humble bee reminds us of how small, unnoticeable changes in the environment can have lasting effects on global industries. [Word count excl. citations: 785]
- González-Varo JP, Biesmeijer JC, Bommarco R, Potts SG, Schweiger O, Smith HG, et al. Combined effects of global change pressures on animal-mediated pollination. Trends in Ecology & Evolution. 2013;28(9):524-30.
- Chopra SS, Bakshi BR, Khanna V. Economic dependence of us industrial sectors on animal-mediated pollination service. Environ Sci Technol. 2015;49(24):14441-51.
- Ellis JD, Evans JD, Pettis J. Colony losses, managed colony population decline, and Colony Collapse Disorder in the United States. J Apic Res. 2010;49(1):134-6.
- Parmesan C. Ecological and evolutionary responses to recent climate change. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics. 2006:637-69.
- Memmott J, Craze PG, Waser NM, Price MV. Global warming and the disruption of plant–pollinator interactions. Ecol Lett. 2007;10(8):710-7.
- Vanbergen AJ, Insect PI. Threats to an ecosystem service: pressures on pollinators. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 2013;11(5):251-9.
- Dainat B, Evans JD, Chen YP, Gauthier L, Neumann P. Predictive markers of honey bee colony collapse. PLoS one. 2012;7(2):e32151.
- Vanengelsdorp D, Caron D, Hayes J, Underwood R, Henson M, Rennich K, et al. A national survey of managed honey bee 2010–11 winter colony losses in the USA: results from the Bee Informed Partnership. J Apic Res. 2012;51(1):115-24.
- Lee KV, Steinhauer N, Rennich K, Wilson ME, Tarpy DR, Caron DM, et al. A national survey of managed honey bee 2013–2014 annual colony losses in the USA. Apidologie. 2015;46(3):292-305.
- Bchler R, Costa C, Hatjina F, Andonov S, Meixner MD, Conte YL, et al. The influence of genetic origin and its interaction with environmental effects on the survival of Apis mellifera L. colonies in Europe. J Apic Res. 2014;53(2):205-14.
- Ratnieks FL, Carreck NL. Clarity on honey bee collapse? Science. 2010;327(5962):152-3.
- WANG D. Implications of US GMO Salmon approved for commercial food use. Chinese Science Bulletin. 2016;61(3):289-95.
- Le Conte Y, Navajas M. Climate change: impact on honey bee populations and diseases. Revue Scientifique et Technique-Office International des Epizooties. 2008;27(2):499-510.
- Wree P, Sauer J. High Yield Genetically Modified Wheat in Germany: Socio Economic Assessment of its Potential. 55th Annual Conference, Giessen, Germany, September 23-25, 2015; German Association of Agricultural Economists (GEWISOLA); 2015.
- Giri J, Tyagi AK. Genetically engineered crops: The path ahead. logy. 2016:25.
- Stallins JA. Honey Bees and Colony Collapse Disorder: A Pluralistic Reframing: Honey Bees and Colony Collapse Disorder. 2016.
Student comments on Show Me the Honey: Plight of the Humble Bee
This blog post is a super interesting and scary example of the knock on effects of global warming. Global warming’s primary effect will be to change temperature, which will make many spots to dry to produce the crop yields they once did. This effect is compounded by global warming’s secondary effects, such as the decline in the bee population. The decline in the bee population means that there are less bees to pollinate crops, which hurts crop yields even further. The scariest thing about global warming is the confluence of negative impacts and the potential “death spiral” they could combine to create.
Interesting post on bees – there has been a lot of buzz about this topic, particularly given the role of bees in the ecosystem. While I think genetically modifying or cross-breeding bees could result in a more resistant species of bees, I wonder if actually doing these tactics would result in negative and “unnatural” unintended consequences. I think genetically-modified foods and organisms suffer from negative consumer perception since their long-term effect on health is still up in the air. Is there an opportunity to shift beekeeping to different geographies? Perhaps they can be moved to colder climates that, due to global warming, would be a suitable environment for beekeeping and not have the mismatch of pollination season.
Thank you for an incredibly thought provoking and well-written post.
I wonder whether this issue can be solved entirely by the private sector or if the state needs to step in with either regulation or programs (at the extreme, one could even imagine state-owned bee farms). For instance, if suspect that the investment vs benefits ratio for a given bee farmer to innovation in bee genetics are limited. A bee farmer might simply pick up another profession, and the consumer might not notice a direct change other than honey becoming more expensive. However, as you point out, it could be necessary to the survival of the species. As climate change becomes more and more pronounced, it would be interesting to see how the market solves for these issues that together need to be solved, but are hard for the market to coordinate around.
Thanks a lot for a deep analysis on an original topic!
Reading your post made me think of some sort of “death spiral”. In order to limit the effects of climate change on the industry, it seems that we have to negatively affect climate even more negatively – by using pesticides, medications, and anti-parasitic chemical regimens to maximize the probability that hives survive into the next season. You then mention three innovative ideas to help shape more sustainable strategies to save the business – do you believe that one of them can prove to be successful in the short run? Isn’t the required investment too high for the project to be undertaken?
Thanks for the great post. As noted in other replies, the future seems challenging (and possibly bleak) for the bee populations in the future. It is disheartening to think we need to resort to genetically modifying and cross breeding animals in order for them to survive in the new climate caused by anthropogenic activities.
I appreciate your laying out the direct impacts on the industry posed by climate change and recommendations for responding in the future. Thanks!
Such an interesting and scary post – had me thinking deeply about the irreversible effects of climate change. While I think the options you propose, i.e. genetic modification, are strong solutions given the reality of the situation, it makes me sad to think that bees in their natural form will no longer be a viable species if trends continue as they have been. While bees have gotten a lot of publicity in recent years, they’re certainly not the only animal species suffering due to global warming. Polar bears, for example, rely on Arctic sea ice, which is rapidly melting due to global warming. The detrimental impact of climate change on all these incredible species is devastating, and the potential downstream impacts of their endangerment, extinction and/or permanent genetic modification involve many other interrelated plants and animals; a potentially crippling chain reaction.