Bee Mortality This Season Will Take A Toll On Human Health

Bee pollinating
Almond farmers rely on bees to pollinate 80 percent of the world's supply. But half their population was wiped out this past winter, taking a toll on food production. Creative Commons

Bees are a working class of insects. They visit flowers and gather nectar to synthesize the sweet honey we depend on for uses as varied soothing sore throats to sweetening sauces to relieving hangovers.

They are also in danger.

For years now, the the population of bees worldwide has been on the decline. Researchers have warned that declining bee populations could be the canary in the coal mine for the state of global ecology. Now, experts are saying that the bee death toll this spring will be even more immediately destructive: as soon as this year, there won't be a big enough bee population to pollinate the trees that help feed human populations.

California's Central Valley alone supplies 80 percent of the world's almond trees, and bees pollinate each and every one. The National Agricultural Statistics Service forecasts the almond production this year will yield $3 billion worth.

But almond farmers are saying half of the beehives were wiped out this past winter, making it harder to pollinate the 800,000 acres of almonds.

The bee population problem is alarming not only from the agricultural standpoint, but for health reasons as well. Almonds are not the only plants bees pollinate. In fact, the insects pollinate one-third of the food people eat, including dozens of plants such as grass and clovers that nourish cattle and poultry, according to Tropical Traders Specialty Foods.

In addition, they pollinate apples, blueberries, grapes, oranges, peanuts, soybeans and other fruits, all produce which are valued in the billions, according to the University of Illinois' Department of Entomology

"We need to bring in a million more colonies but due to the winter losses, we may not have enough bees," Eric Mussen of the department of entomology at University of California Davis told Western Farm Press earlier this month.

"Usually when we're short of nectar, we're short on pollen, and honey bees need both," he added. "So, 2012 was a bad year for bee nutrition."

That's why farmers are looking for outside-farmed honeybees to meet the demands. Just how much more outside farmers could provide is also in question.

Following the release of a report by the Genetic Literacy Project (a non-partisan non-profit organization focusing on agricultural and human genetics for farming, food, and medical purposes) the European Commission made strides to carry out a two-year neonicotinoid insecticide ban that could protect bees in Europe. 

Neonicotinoids are commonly applied to the soil, seeds, and growing crops — they are known for effectively removing pests by 10 to 20 fold. However, environmentalists believe these insecticides are at the root of the bee colony killing.   

But some beekeepers and researchers from the United States are divided on the insecticide use. Many are not convinced that its the perpetrator.

There are other stressors that make bees susceptible to health issues. For example, beekeepers currently crowd 1.6 million American beehives in trucks every year, shipping them off to the California region to pollinate, in the process exposing them to viruses and parasites and ultimately taking the lives of many bees, reported Forbes.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a comprehensive report on honey bees today, citing disease, genetics, poor nutrition and pesticide as factors contributing to their poor health. 

"There is an important link between the health of American agriculture and the health of our honeybees for our country's long term agricultural productivity," said Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan. "The forces impacting honeybee health are complex and USDA, our research partners, and key stakeholders will be engaged in addressing this challenge."

Acting EPA Administrator Bob Perciasepe says, "we've made significant progress, but there is still much work to be done to protect the honey bee population." 

Officials are saying that the colonies need to be more genetically diverse in the United States, to improve their body's temperature regulation in the environment and improve resistance to disease to increase productivity. Varroa mites carry viruses, while some chemical treatments could kill them off they're some developing resistance and attacking bees. 

They're also adding that the bees need better forage and variety in plants to vastly improve their nutritional intake. The USDA recommends that "federal and state partners should consider actions affecting land management to maximize available nutritional forage to promote and enhance good bee health and to protect bees by keeping them away from pesticide-treated fields."

While it remains unclear why exactly bee populations are dwindling, it's certain that it's no longer just an insect problem. We may soon have to face the fact that we need to care for other species if we want to sustain our own.

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