Albert Einstein once said that if the bees disappeared from the face of the Earth, mankind would go shortly after. Even all those decades ago, we knew the importance of pollinators not just to our environment, but to our food supply as well. One in three calories of food is due to pollination by insects like bees.
A decade ago, we first started learning about a mysterious disorder, first reported by beekeepers in North America. It was dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder. It was a broad description of something we didn’t completely understand. Bee hives, once thriving and healthy, would abruptly become abandoned with dead bees being the only things left behind. The bees were dying in alarming numbers.
But the issue of colony collapse was not relegated to North America. The problem was soon after reported across the planet.
Beekeepers factor in colony loss. Typically, a successful beekeeper can tolerate and expect a loss of about 15% of their hives. During the winter of 2015-2016, beekeepers in the United States lost 28% of their colonies. The problem is still very real. But what’s being done about it?
A decade ago, things didn’t look good for the world’s pollinators. Even now, problems persist, most notably the classification of the rusty patched bumblebee as endangered.
Now, across the planet, scientists, researchers, and even governments have sprung into action. Many countries have developed methods of tracking and monitoring bee populations, helping scientists understand where bees are being the hardest hit.
Scientists are also much closer to understanding what’s at work when a colony collapses. 10 years ago, Colony Collapse Disorder was shrouded in mystery. The only explanations for it were purely theoretical. In that span of time, however, we’ve come much closer to understanding what’s actually happening to these colonies and what factors exacerbate colony collapse.
The straight answer is that there really isn’t much of a straight answer. Colony collapse is a complicated problem that can stem from a variety of causes. Some bees have had their cognitive functions impacted by environmental factors. In this case, colonies collapse because the bees can’t find flowers to sustain their hives and, in some cases, fly off, get lost, and then die from exhaustion.
A bee’s cognition can be impacted by a number of factors, most leading to stress in the insects. It’s been found that neonicotinoid pesticides, diesel fumes, and a lack of a wide variety of flowers can contribute to this.
Globalization also impacts bees, with viruses, pests, and predators being shipped into unfamiliar lands via international trade. The Varroa destructor mite is the most notorious of the bee’s enemies, which impact brain development in younger bees, leading them to be less able later in life.
But what can I do about it?
At the core of the issue, food availability for the bees seems to be the biggest problem. We engage in a system of monocultural agriculture. We have acres and acres of just one kind of plant. Imagine if all you had to eat was corn, or soybeans, or wheat. You’d be pretty unhealthy, right? It’s the same thing for the bees. So providing bees with a wide variety of flowers from which to gather pollen is critical.
You can also provide a safe habitat for bees. Consider keeping a hive on your property. Some bee keepers will actually distribute their hives, allowing you to care for it and, when honey harvest time comes, you keep part of the spoils.
Insect hotels and natural debris serve as safe habitat for bee species that live their lives largely individually, like bumble bees. Leaving leaves and sticks on the ground during the winter gives these pollinators a place to hibernate away from the cold of winter.
And lastly, be conscious of what you do to your lawn. Using herbicides and pesticides can have a negative impact on your local bee populations. Even mowing your lawn less often can help the bees.