By George Giltner, Adv. Master Gardener, MS Biology
Where are all the honey bees? They are around, but just not as many as their used to be. Back in the 1950’s, according to the USDA Natural Agricultural Statistics Services, over 5.5 million honey bee colonies were buzzing around pollinating our US crops. Now we have less than ½ that number.
These valuable little pollinators were once treasured by large numbers of rural small farms throughout America. Crops were pollinated to substantially increase the crop yields and local honey flavored morning biscuits and Grandmother’s pies. But things have changed. Now, urban sprawl and big agriculture have moved into our countryside. The result of this encroachment into honey bee habitat is fewer bees, less interest in beekeeping, and even suburban phobias of every bee as a “Killer Bee”. Therefore without beekeepers, honey hive trees, and diverse vegetation for most of the year, the numbers of bee colonies have dwindled. Urbanites obsessive tidiness with yard and landscaping removes uncultivated areas that make good bee habitats, especially for ground dwelling bees. Take away their homes and food sources (nectar for energy and pollen for protein), and they are simply gone.
However, modern changes in agriculture (globalization, crop monocultures, insecticides, microbes and nutrition) are further affecting the decline in bee populations. That sounds familiar. These topics come up every day in the news on human health. We have many parallels in life with honey bees.
Globalization of bees from around the world has opened up new markets for honey and bee products. Beekeepers have imported specific gene characteristics of Australian bees, Russian bees and many other countries. Then in 1987 (Florida and Wisconsin), the bee blood-sucking varroa mite was detected as an imported pest. In a few years nearly every colony in the United States was infected. Wild honey bees have nearly disappeared. Not only did the mite vampire-feeding destroy bees and larvae, but it also spread various bee viruses, which can lead to the rapid and spectacular death of colonies.
Similar human events occurred worldwide when Europeans expanded into the New World. Smallpox, venereal diseases, and other pathogens decimated non-resistant island and American native populations. Previously the same type of event occurred in the 1300’s with the introduction of the “Black Death” Bubonic Plague which wiped out up to 60% (25 million) of the European population with infected rat fleas from the Asian silk roads. Biologists are well aware of the dangers of introducing foreign species into new environments. Yet many products from produce to exotic animals to horticultural plants are imported into the US without adequate quarantines and inspections.
Monocultures like hundreds of thousands of acres of corn threaten the future of our bees. In these huge patches of corn, there is almost nothing but corn. A rare spider, a few grasshoppers, can be found but very sparse samples of life from what used to be in the same fields. The newer systemic insecticides, known as neonicotinoids, are the fastest growing insecticides in the world, especially in genetically modified corn. These insecticides are very efficient in reaching all parts of the plant, including the pollen and nectar and even soil dust in and near applied fields. Bee colonies began disappearing immediately after the EPA allowed use of these pesticides in the United States.
The neonicotinoids like Imidacloprid, are highly toxic to bees by affecting their nervous systems accumulatively. Minute levels cause impaired navigation, disorientation, and other neurological problems. The result is bees wondering off course and not returning to their hives. Immune dysfunction and opportunistic diseases with parasites, viruses, bacteria, and fungi also result when pesticide-laden pollen is brought back to the hive. In March of 2013, the European Food Safety Authority banned several neonicotinoids for the next two years. Also in March 2013, professional beekeepers filed a lawsuit against the US EPA for allowing the use of the neonicotinoids, clothianidin and thiamethoxam, which is blamed for a dramatic die off (up to 50% reported by beekeepers) of bees in the United States.
Insecticide health problems have long plagued man too. Back in 1925, the USDA Yearbook recommended the use of lead arsenate as an insecticide for spraying peach and other orchards. Lead is now regarded as unsafe particularly in children at any detectable level. It has been tied to genetic to many neurological disorders (learning disabilities, behavior changes, insomnia, hyperactivity, impaired growth, hearing loss, and upper extremity weakness – Hero EPA website). Arsenic is a known carcinogen. Therefore, the message is that quickly introduced, under-evaluated insecticides have caused much misery to man and other life forms.
Poor nutrition is believed to cause 50% of bees dying by reports from several states. Researchers state that colony collapse disorder is mainly due to bees feeding on a monoculture diet. They should receive pollen and nectar from a variety of sources/plants. Bees fed pollen from a variety of plant species have been shown to have better immune systems. In some areas bees are given corn syrup in winter, then in summer they pollinate a single crop like cherries, orange, apples, or almonds. A recent 2013 study has shown that a detoxifying-insecticide chemical of natural honey, p-coumaric acid, is not found in high fructose, artificial, over-winter food substitutes. With more research and understanding of bee nutrition, we may see a comeback in bee populations.
Poor nutrition is also a big problem in the United States where obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and a whole spectrum of other nutrition related diseases affect our population with misery and health care costs skyrocketing. A trip to the grocery store leads to rows of high fructose corn syrup, corn products, wheat, and potato products. Change the flavor and these three plant starches make up many modern poor diets. Cook food with Louisiana’s alkaline water (8.3 pH avg.) and folic acid (along with other B vitamins) are destroyed. Fresh fruit and a wide variety of vegetables are left off the menu of many family diets in favor of ready to eat microwave meals.
A study of human coprolites (paleo-poop) of caves is west Texas and many other places in the world have shown that our ancestors relied on a diet of hundreds of plant species. From this wide variety of fruits and veggies, they received a natural complement of phytonutrients, essential minerals and vitamins. Our current limited variety of foods is new to our human biology and digestive microbes. It is causing us health problems.
When we examine the loss of bees, we should also reflect upon parallels that we share together with these small creatures of nature. As we learn more from microbiology, nutrition, our history, and the sciences, our future can bee brighter. Contact the Southwest Louisiana Beekeepers Association or the LSU AgCenter (337-463-7004) for more information.