Bees Are in Trouble—Here’s How You Can Help

Janet McGarry, CUESA Volunteer
August 22, 2019

Insect populations around the world are in trouble with steep declines in both diversity and abundance. Although insects are tiny creatures, they represent the vast majority of animals and play an enormous role in our food supply and sustaining life on our planet. 

Pollinators like bees are struggling, in particular. Studies suggest that more than 40% of pollinator species may be facing extinction. Thirty-five percent of crop production worldwide (worth $217 billion annually) require pollination. One-third of every bite humans eat—mostly fruits, vegetables, nuts, oil and dairy products full of vitamins, minerals, and delicious flavors—exists because of pollinators, and they depend on all of us for their survival.

Pollinators in Decline

Because honeybees are some of the most important pollinators for agricultural crops, they have been studied and monitored more than other insects. In addition to producing honey, managed honeybee colonies pollinate half of U.S. crops; wild bees and other pollinators take care of the other half. 

According to the Bee Informed Partnership, 37.7% of the managed honeybee population declined this past winter season, the highest level of winter losses since the survey began in 2006.

Native bees are also faring poorly. In 2017, the Center for Biological Diversity reported that more than half of the native bee species were declining, and almost one in four faced the risk of extinction. Some of the most important native bees are bumblebees, which pollinate tomatoes, blueberries, clover, and cranberries. Among bumblebees, 28% are considered threatened in North America. In 2017, the Rusty Patched bumblebee became the first native bee species in the lower 48 states to make the endangered species list. 

Why is the state of bee populations so grim? Like all insects, bees are weathering a perfect storm caused by habitat loss and degradation, pesticide use, disease, and climate change. 

Disappearing and Degraded Habitat

Loss and fragmentation of habitat is one of the biggest factors contributing to bee loss. Grasslands, scrubland, and wetlands, once flower-rich habitat, have been developed or converted into commercial-scale farms where monocultures dominate. 

“We are paving over land and destroying natural landscapes to make them more controlled,” says City Bees beekeeper Robert MacKimmie, who tends beehives around the Bay Area and sells honey at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. “Wild habitat is essential to bees and all pollinators because it provides food sources for them. Getting rid of weeds and wild growth with Roundup [a wildly used toxic herbicide] and mowing is devastating to wildlife.” 

Pesticides Are Poisoning Bees

Pesticides are also taking a heavy toll. A recent study reported that U.S. agriculture is 48 times more toxic to insects than it was before neonicotinoids (a class of neuroactive insecticides chemically related to nicotine) were introduced 20 years ago. Neonicotinoids are used primarily on conventionally grown commodity crops like soy and corn. 

Unlike other pesticides that break down within hours or days, neonicotinoids persist in the environment for months, even years after application, building up in soils, plants, and surface waters creating cumulative toxicity. Neonicotinoids kill bees directly but also have sub-lethal impacts, harming bees’ behavior, reproduction, health, and immunity, which contributes to deaths from parasites and disease. 

Diseases Spread by Invasive Mites

Honeybees have been hit particularly hard by the Varroa destructor mite. These tiny parasites feed on bee larvae and pupae and spread viruses that weaken the developing bees and cause defects like shriveled wings and shrunken abdomens. Because the mite grows from an egg to an adult in just a week, its population in a bee colony can explode in a short time and invade other hives.

In June, researchers reported that viruses in managed honeybee hives are spreading to wild bumblebees through flowers shared by the two types of bees. These findings suggest that commercial honeybee hives need to be kept away from endangered native bees.

However, there is some positive news regarding the fight against mites. Organic acids effective in reducing mite populations are currently in trials for FDA approval in the U.S. In addition, mite-resistant honeybees, which are described in the new book The Lives of Bees, exist in the wild and, through natural selection, could eventually replace honeybees vulnerable to mites. However, for that transition to happen, beekeepers would have to make significant changes in their current management practices and incur significant losses.

Climate Change Is Wreaking Havoc

Climate change is already harming bees, and scientists are concerned about greater damage to bees as temperatures rise. Unusually warm days in winter confuse bees and contributes to mortality in hives. “Bees wake up and become active, but then the weather turns cold again and wipes out some of them,” says Robert. Unpredictable swings in temperature during winter are becoming so common that beekeepers are storing hives indoors, where temperature is controlled.

Warmer temperatures disrupt normal cycles of flower blooms and can even affect pollen quality. “When nature gets out of cycle, it can really impact pollination. During one heat wave, high temperatures damaged the protein in the pollen so that it was only about 40% as effective as it normally is,” says Robert.

How You Can Help the Bees

We can all help bees through our food choices, by purchasing from certified organic farmers who use sustainable farming practices and create pollinator-friendly, flower-rich habit for bees. “I’m a big supporter of small, organic family farms, which grow diverse crops. That is really important for insects,” says Robert. 

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation is working with farmers in the Central Valley to create insect-friendly habit including planting hedgerows. With Oregon Tilth and the USDA’s Natural Resource Conservation Service, Xerces has developed Bee Better Certified, the first third-party verified certification program focused on pollinator health. 

Robert suggests that other helpful actions we can take include reducing pesticide use in lawns and gardens, mowing lawns less frequently to leave forage for bees, and planting pollinator gardens. 

If you’re an amateur beekeeper or interested in becoming one, be sure to do your homework and talk to beekeepers who are in the know before you start. Poorly maintained hives can spread mites and diseases, so beekeepers must devote time and effort to controlling mite populations. Robert recommends Scientific Beekeeping as a resource.

Bees and other insects are invaluable to the health of agriculture and natural lands, so it is imperative that we do our part to help them recover. “We are impacting all of the systems of nature with our current destructive practices. We can turn it around, but we can’t wait. We have to start taking care of the land now,” says Robert.

Support City Bees at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays and Thursdays, and Mission Community Market on Thursday evenings. Find a complete list of local beekeepers with honey products at CUESA’s farmers markets here.

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