Nature fought against humans for millennia. Now Earth is seeing the repercussions. This sample environmental essay explores the decline in honey bee populations and efforts to reduce damage.
What is “colony collapse disorder?”
Throughout the history of beekeeping, large-scale bee disappearances have been given a variety of names: autumn collapse, May disease, spring dwindle. In 2006, the term “colony collapse disorder” (CCD) was adopted to describe the syndrome, which has swept across North America and Europe at unprecedented levels in recent years. The syndrome has been attributed to various factors, including disease, malnutrition, mites, and pesticides.
CCD is a serious problem because of the integral role that bees play in the harvesting of numerous crops. According to figures compiled by the United Nation’s Agriculture and Consumer Protection Department, one of the agencies that enforce the United States’ environmental policies, bee pollination was responsible for $200 billion in worldwide crops during 2005 (“Protecting the pollinators”). Domestically, honey bees are crucial to the cultivation of at least 90 commercial fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Consequently, the cost of leasing bees for use in agriculture has risen by 20 percent due to the shortage (Wines).
Obama’s plan to stop CCD
While scientists have yet to embrace any single method for dealing with CCD, the Obama administration has turned its attention to the syndrome. Following up on last year’s pledge for action on the issue, the White House has released a plan geared towards educating people in the harvesting sector, as well as those in the general public. As stated in a joint letter from Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy:
The aim is to involve all segments of society in the fight against colony decline by “expanding the conversation through enhanced public education and outreach, as well as strongly built public/private partnerships,” (Worland).
In the words of Obama’s science advisor John Holdren, beekeepers—whose industry contributes $15 billion annually to the U.S. economy—are “struggling” to maintain their colonies, which dwindled by at least 40 percent during 2014 (“Federal government announces”). With all things considered, the government has laid out the following initiatives to combat CCD:
- an increase in bee-related research spending
- a decrease in pesticide usage
- the establishment of seed banks (also used to prepare for global warming disasters)
- the training of more bee scientists
- the cultivation of more bee-conducive federal land
As part of the administration’s plan, funding for bee research will increase from $34 million to $82.5 million over the coming year (Borenstein). Ultimately, the goal behind the administration’s plan is to restore as much as 7 million acres of habitat for bees over the next half decade.
Scientific Concerns regarding bee health and pesticides
Scientists have raised concerns about the impact of single-crop fields on the health of bees. Therefore, the new plan will require federal agencies to cultivate a wider array of plants for bees to consume. In addition to the Department of Interior, which controls large amounts of land, the plan will call upon agencies like the Department of Housing and Urban Development to reevaluate future property development schemes with bee-friendly landscaping in mind.
According to entomological professor Dennis van Englesdorp of the University of Maryland:
There is “really only one hope for bees and it’s to make sure they spend a good part of the year in safe healthy environments,” (“Federal government announces”).
Having headed the recent study that confirmed last year’s colony depletion, he considers the scarcity of bee-friendly environments to be a major crisis, but he believes that the administration’s plan could help remedy the matter.
Bee specialist Jerry Bromenshenk of the University of Montana has concurred, adding that beekeepers need safe, chemical-free environments with proper foods and nutrients for colony cultivation. He also thinks that the recent steps taken by the Obama administration to address CCD will serve as a wake-up call to the public at large.
Related Reading: Read an article about other animals experiencing decline in populations and at risk of extinction.
Criticism of Obama’s
However, the plan has drawn criticism in certain quarters for moving too slow on the issue of neonicotinoid pesticides, the approval of which is pending safety studies by the Environmental Protection Agency. As stated by health advocate Lori Ann Burd of the Center for Biological Diversity:
The administration is “not taking bold enough action considering that there’s a crisis at hand with the bee population.” She further likens the pesticide studies to a motorist seeking redundant, secondary advise on a clear-cut auto-mechanical defect (“Federal government announces”).
In an attempt to court both sides of the pesticide debate, the administration is acknowledging the role that chemicals play in agriculture but has placed emphasis on the harm that they bring to bee colonies.
The report further states that bees are “a priority for the federal government, as both bee pollination and insect control are essential to the success of agriculture,” (“Federal government announces”)
Lagging behind Europe in the fight against CCD
The move from the White House to combat CCD comes two years after the European Commission (EC) banned the use of neonicotinoid pesticides following a declaration on their dangers by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which reached its conclusion after a 2012 study conducted at the University of Stirling in Scotland. Coming just months after the U.K. government dismissed evidence of the danger as insufficient grounds for banning the pesticides, biologist Dave Goulson—who led the study—said:
The EC’s decision “begs the question of what was going on when these chemicals were first approved,” (Carrington).
As a Professor of Biology at the University of Sussex, Goulson also noted with considerable dismay that more than half a century has passed since conservationist Rachel Carson published her pioneering research into the dangers of pesticides, Silent Spring, yet the world has yet to come around on the issue.
The Move to ban neonicotinoids in the U.S.
In early 2013, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was slapped with a lawsuit filed jointly by conservationists and beekeepers in an effort to halt the domestic use of neonicotinoid pesticides; in particular the chemicals clothianidin and thiamethoxam. The suit was spurred by rising levels of colony collapse disorder (CCD) in the U.S., where some of the litigants had lost as much as half of their beehives. Hoping to thwart the controversy, the EPA issued a report that soft-pedaled the dangers of neonicotinoids while blaming the Varroa mite for increased levels of hive depletion.
That same year, House members Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) and John Conyers (D-Mich.) introduced the Save America’s Pollinators Act of 2013 (H.R. 2692). The bill would halt the use of neonicotinoids pending a further study into their detriments on bee habitats (“Text of the Saving”). On March 4, 2015, the bill was revived as the Saving America’s Pollinators Act (H.R. 1284), which is presently under review by a congressional subcommittee on horticultural issues.
Polonization concerns among U.S. crop growers
CCD has been especially devastating for California’s almond harvesters, who largely rely on bee pollination for crop cultivation. In the Golden State alone, pollination has accounted for roughly 10 percent of the nation’s $15 billion annual bee-reliant crop value since the turn of the millennium.
Since the honey bee is of European origin, none of America’s native plants rely on the insect for pollination. Therefore, as an introduced species, the bee’s role in stateside crop cultivation is mostly agricultural. Crops that rely on bee pollination include apples, blackberries, cantaloupes, cherries, cranberries, cucumbers, peaches, raspberries, strawberries, and watermelons. In small settings, other types of bees—such as the squash bee—can be used in the pollination of certain crops that typically rely on the European bee, but not to any mass extent. For plants native to the U.S., honeybee pollination is sometimes used by farmers, but it isn’t exactly necessary, especially when the natural pollinators of such plants are already available.
Overall, nearly a third of crop types are pollinated by honey bees. While individuals of other species can pollinate some of the same plants with greater efficiency, none of those species are likely to visit such plants in mass densities. Therefore, what honey bees may lack in terms of individual efficiency, they make up for by saturating plants en masse. Since beehives can be moved between crops on an as-needed basis, bees are also the most adaptable of insects for pollination; the process of which can be very labor-intensive when left to human hands, as is done by apple growers in China.
How this affects the public
A lot of people fear bees due to the insect’s nature as a stinging creature. Typically, such people are unmindful of the crucial role that bees play in the availability of everyday goods and produce; and that is the reason why everyone should be concerned about CCD, because if bees disappear, things will become a lot less savory at the dinner table.
“Protecting the pollinators.” Agriculture and Consumer Protection Department. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. n.d. Web. 28 May 2015.
Wines, Michael. “Mystery Malady Kills More Bees, Heightening Worry on Farms.” New York Times. The New York Times Company. 28 March 2013. Web. 28 May 2015.
Worland, Justin. “White House Unveils Plan to Save the Honeybees.” TIME. Time Inc. 19 May 2015. Web. 29 May 2015.
“Federal government announces plan to bolster honeybee, butterfly populations.” FOX NEWS. FOX News Network, LLC. 19 May 2015. Web. 28 May 2015.
Borenstein, Seth. “White House announces federal plan to feed the bees.” Star Tribune. Star Tribune Media Company, LLC. 19 May 2015. Web. 30 May 2015.
Carrington, Damian. “Insecticide ‘unacceptable’ danger to bees, report finds.” The Guardian. Guardian Media Group. 16 Jan. 2013. Web. 29 May 2015.
“Text of the Saving America’s Pollinators Act of 2013.” Govtrack.us. Civic Impulse, LLC. 16 July 2013. Web. 30 May 2015.