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The Plight of Bees

Marla Spivak (University of Minnesota); Eric Mader and Mace Vaughan (Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation); Ned Euliss (USGS)
Excerpted from feature article to appear in upcoming issue of Environmental Science and Technology.

Bee Declines

Colony collapse disorder (CCD), the name for the syndrome causing honey bees to suddenly and mysteriously disappear from their hives--thousands of individual worker bees literally flying off to die--captured public consciousness when it was first named in 2007. Since then, the story of vanishing honey bees has become ubiquitous in popular consciousness--driving everything from ice cream marketing campaigns to plots for The Simpsons. The untold story is that these hive losses are simply a capstone to more than a half-century of more prosaic day-to-day losses that beekeepers already faced from parasites, diseases, poor nutrition, and pesticide poisoning.

The larger story still is that while honey bees are charismatic and important to agriculture, other important bees are also suffering, and in some cases their fates are far worse. These other bees are a subset of the roughly 4,000 species of wild bumble bees (Bombus), leafcutter bees (Megachile), and others that are native to North America. While the honey bee was originally imported from Europe by colonists in the early 17th century, these native bees have evolved with our local ecosystems, and along with honey bees, are valuable crop pollinators.

People want to know why bees are dying and how to help them. This concern provides a good opportunity to more closely examine pollinators and our dependence upon them. Bees are reaching their tipping point because they are expected to perform in an increasingly inhospitable world.

Bee declines can be attributed to three factors:

1. Bees have their own diseases and parasites that weaken and kill them. Sick bees are more susceptible to the effects of poor nutrition and pesticide poisoning, and vice versa.
2. Many flowers, nest sites, and nesting materials are contaminated with pesticides. Bees pick up the insecticides, herbicides and fungicides applied to home gardens and lawns, golf courses, roadsides, and crops. These pesticides, alone and in combination, can be toxic.
3. There are not enough blooming flowers over the length of the growing season in our agricultural and urban landscapes to support bees.

Emerging Responses to Declines in Bee Health

To study CCD and other pollinator health issues, the 2008 Farm Bill approved more than $17 million in funding annually for five years for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and for university research grants. The Farm Bill also approved another annual $2.75 million for five years to increase honey bee health inspections. Since the Farm Bill became law this funding has never been fully appropriated.

The 2008 Farm Bill also dictated that current USDA competitive grant programs should include pollinators - honey bees and native bees - as research priorities. As a result, research programs funded by the USDA under the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), such as the Specialty Crops Research Initiative (SCRI) and the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), made pollinators a research priority in 2010.

Protection from Pesticides

A factor that can be addressed at multiple levels is the use of pesticides. In particular, while extensive literature exists on the sublethal effects of insecticides on bees in the laboratory, little exists on sublethal effects to colonies under natural conditions. Common insecticides such as neonicotinoids and pyrethroids have been shown to affect learning, foraging activities, and nest site orientation by honey bees at sublethal doses.

Individual farmers and homeowners have the ability to mitigate harm to pollinators through simple changes in application methods such as avoiding treatments around blooming plants or to areas where bees are nesting. Evening spraying when bees are less active is another simple, underutilized way to reduce harm. The best course of action, and the one most accessible to gardeners, for whom insect damage is cosmetic rather than economic, is to eliminate the use of pesticides entirely.

The Need for Habitat

The third major challenge facing bees is a lack of season-long food sources, especially in agricultural landscapes where, if bee-pollinated plants even exist, they typically consist of large monocultures like cranberries, canola, or almonds, which provide only a few weeks of abundant food followed by a season-long dearth. Roughly 360 million hectares, or more than one-third, of the lower 48 states are managed as private cropland, pasture, or rangeland. This makes agriculture the largest land use activity in the country and thus one with the most potential impact on bees.

Specific habitat guidelines for all of these landscapes (rural, urban, roadside) vary across regions. Baseline habitat guidelines encourage the inclusion of at least 3 different plant species that bloom at any given time during the growing season (spring, summer, fall), with more being even better. For planting recommendations, visit:

Concluding Remarks

Pollinators are receiving more conservation attention today than at any other time in history. Scientists, conservationists, and farmers are working harder than ever - in partnership - to understand how pesticides, diseases, and habitat loss impact pollinator populations. They are also working to understand the most successful strategies for creating landscapes that support the greatest abundance of these important insects.

At the same time, the public and policy-makers are increasingly aware of the problems afflicting bees and the critical role they play in food production and natural systems. But there is no reason to wait for research and policy to mitigate the plight of the bees. Individuals can modify their immediate landscapes to make them healthier for bees, whether that landscape is a public rangeland in Wyoming or a flower box in Brooklyn. It is also possible to reduce agricultural and urban pesticide use to mitigate bee poisonings. We can engage in the sustainable management of honey bees and native bees. Promoting the health of bee pollinators can begin as an individual or local endeavor, but collectively has the far-reaching potential to beautify and benefit our environment in vital and tangible ways.

Editor's note: Imidacloprid we have been talking about is a neonicotinoid.

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