When people think of bees, more often than not, they think of honey, flowers and hives. What people don’t realise is that bees are responsible for 70% of the fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds that we consume on a daily basis (AsapSCIENCE 2015).
Whilst you’re eating your day-to-day meals, you have bees to thank for one in every three bites of food you take (Suzuki 2014). Bees are vitally important to the wellbeing of the planet and the human population, but since 2006, bee populations have been rapidly declining (AsapSCIENCE 2015). This phenomenon was henceforth named ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’, and the threat of losing our bees appears to be becoming more and more real each year as experts try to figure out the main causes of our bees disappearing.
In this essay I will discuss the possible reasons for the shrinking bee population, and the challenges and problems mankind would face if we were to lose our precious bees.
As previously implied, the importance of bees should not be underestimated. Bees have been pollinating plants and producing honey for 10-20 million years (Benjamin 2015), and when humans began to inhabit the earth, their usefulness and importance was discovered. Cave drawings from as far as 20,000 years ago show images of people seeking honey from beehives (Benjamin 2015), and the ancient Egyptians used to transport hives along the river Nile to pollinate the surrounding crops, even burying their pharaohs alongside containers of honey to ‘sweeten the afterlife’ (Benjamin 2015). The Egyptians also used honey as a tribute and as a form of payment (Jorgensen 2015), showing the extent to which it was valued. To this day, honey continues to prove useful in many professions thanks to its health benefits, extremely sweet taste and also its antibacterial and antiseptic properties.
Types of bees
Around 25,000 different species of bee currently inhabit the earth, and whilst only four of these species are honeybees, every specie carries out the crucial act of pollination. The vast majority of the global bee population are solitary bees, who unlike honeybees who live in colonies of up to 10,000 bees (Benjamin 2015), live and work alone. Most are adapted to pollinate a single type of plant for their whole life. Solitary bees are understandably more difficult to study hence their independent nature, so for a long time it was questioned whether solitary bee populations, as well as as honeybee populations (which had already been established to be in decline) were decreasing in size, but in March 2015, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) conducted the first investigation which studied all 1,965 bee species native to Europe, and found that one in ten of Europe’s wild bee species face extinction due to factors such as intensive farming, climate change and pesticide use (Benjamin 2015).
Anatomy of the bee
In order to have a clear understanding of exactly how and why bees pollinate plants, it’s important to gain an insight into the anatomy and behaviour of bees. The following explanations describe the features of honeybees, our most critical pollinators, and whilst each bee species varies slightly in terms of characteristics, the anatomy of the bee is predominantly similar amongst different bee species.
Honeybees use their antennae for touch and smell, as well as to communicate with other members of the colony and to find sources of food (Woodard, no date).
Although their brains are merely the size of a sesame seed (Woodard, n.d.), the complexity and capability is astonishing. It is capable of performing complicated learning and communication tasks – such as directionality, in which the bees tell each other where to find specific locations, such as a particularly good flower patch – with more detail and accuracy than even a modern GPS system or advanced language could communicate. This seemingly impossible behaviour is performed in the form of the ‘waggle dance’ and pheromone interpretation (transmitting chemicals into the air for the other bees to detect) (Woodard, n.d.).
In addition to possessing such an extraordinary brain, the honeybee head also stores the hypopharyngeal gland, which releases a protein that is used to feed larvae, and is also critical in the production of royal jelly, a nutritious food used which is fed to the queen. From when they are larvae until their death, queens eat only royal jelly, meaning the hypopharyngeal gland is fundamental to hive survival (Woodard, n.d.).
A honeybee’s head is home to 170 odour receptors, giving them a sense of smell so precise they can differentiate between hundreds of different flower types and even distinguish if a plant contains pollen or nectar from miles away (Woodard, n.d.). For reference, fruit flies have only 62 odour receptors and mosquitoes have 79.
Which bees are in danger
Which foods would be available?
If bees were to be completely eradicated, we would be left with limited food options; our diets would consist mainly of rice, corn and wheat (as these are wind pollinated plants and therefore do not require bees) (AsapSCIENCE 2015), meaning most meals would be relatively monotonous. Other food-providing plants which don’t require pollination from bees are sugarcane or sugar beets (Herzog 2015). This means that cakes, cookies, pasta, cereal, alcohol, fizzy pop, and bread would still be available to us. Fortunately for us, chickens are able to survive on grains alone, meaning we would still have access to chicken meat and eggs (Herzog 2015).
Which foods would we lose?
The list of crop plants pollinated by bees is extensive. Dozens of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds would be completely missing from our diets, including every-day foods such as apples, broccoli, carrots, mangos, lemons, limes, onions, avocados, cucumbers, cauliflower and many more (Whole Foods 2013).
In the aims of raising awareness of how important pollinators are to our diets, the University Heights Whole Foods Market store in Rhode Island, USA, temporarily removed from their shelves all produce that comes from pollination-dependant plants. Countless shelves were left bare as 237 of the 453 products – 52 percent of the normal product range – were withdrawn (Whole Foods 2013).
This lack of diversity in our diets would not only be pitiful, but also dangerous and would leave the majority of us with poor and deteriorating health. A research team led by Claire Kremen at UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) looking in to the vitamin and mineral content of animal-pollinated crops
To put it simply, you could survive on a diet free of bee-pollinated crops, but you probably would not want to.
How else would we be affected
Bees are a lot more capable than most people realise. As well as providing both humans and animals with multitudinous nutritious foods, bees posses a whole other range of useful skills that have helped professionals do their jobs in a more effective and efficient manner. Dogs are famous for having an astounding sense of smell, so it’s no surprise that for decades, they have been used by police and military workers to sniff out explosives in a manner that is simply not possible for humans or machines to do. However, as claimed by scientists from the Defense Advanced Research Laboratory (DARPA), bees actually have a sense of smell that matches that of a dog. In order to train the bees to detect explosives such as TNT, researchers use the techniques of Pavlov to allow to bees to inform humans of when they have detected explosives. The researchers are able to achieve this by getting the honeybees to associate the smell of explosives with sugar water. When the bees detect sugar water, they extend their proboscis (which acts as and resembles a tongue), and so by continued association between sugar water and the smell of bomb ingredients, researchers are able to train the bees to extend their proboscis when they smell the explosives.
But the declining populations means that bees will potentially be having to be removed from this field of work, returning to do their indigenous job of pollinating our crops and plants.
Neonicotinoids are the world’s most widely used insecticides (Dean 2017), and there’s good reason for it. A single application of this crop treatment to a plant causes the chemicals to circulate throughout the entire plant, meaning every single part of the plant is contaminated with the chemicals, including the pollen and nectar. This method is much more effective than the traditional spray-on pesticides, which could not guarantee total protection against insects and similar pests. Understandably, this is great news for farmers, but it’s bad news for bees.
A high enough dose of these insecticides is fatal to bees, as the chemical attacks the bee’s central nervous system. If the bee has not been subjected to a lethal dose, a bee contaminated with this insecticide is rendered useless because the chemical causes the bee to become disorientated, confused, and possibly paralysed, subsequently unable to do its vital job. Even if a contaminated bee is still mobile and appears capable, the guard bees (who guard the hive and warn off unwanted visitors) will not let a contaminated bee inside the hive, eventually leading to the bee’s death. On occasions where a contaminated bee does enter the hive, the whole colony will be exposed to the chemicals, which causes mass confusion and leads to a dysfunctional hive.
Rising CO2 levels
Humans emit about 29 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the Earth’s atmosphere per year (Cook 2015), and because of factors such as the constantly expanding population and the increasingly frequent utilisation of harmful fossil fuels, that figure is rising every year. Carbon dioxide has not only negatively affected our climate through its hazardous greenhouse effect, but it has also been harming our plants, and consequently, our wildlife.
To gain an insight in to how carbon dioxide is affecting bees, researchers turned to a collection of goldenrod – a perennial plant native to North America – dating back to 1842, stored at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Scientists took pollen samples from goldenrod obtained between 1842 and 2014, over which period the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere rose from about 280 parts per million to 398 parts per million (Palmer 2016). They found that the pollen samples from 2014 contained 30 percent less protein than the earlier samples. An experiment in the same study demonstrated similar protein decrease when plants were subjected to higher levels of carbon dioxide.
Numerous studies have been carried out to test the effect of carbon dioxide on plants, all of which have concluded that an increased level of atmospheric carbon dioxide has a negative effect on the nutritional value of plants. However the goldenrod study was the first to look at the effects of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide on bee’s diets. From the results, the researchers concluded that the diminishing amount of protein in the pollen as a direct result of the rising levels of carbon dioxide, may be contributing to the declining bee population by reducing the amount of nutrition the bee has access to, causing numerous problems for the bees including malnutrition and decreased reproductive success (Palmer 2016).
This poses a real threat because bees rely solely on nectar and pollen as their source of food to keep them alive. Nectar provides them with sucrose sugar, while pollen provides them with vital protein (Somerville 2000). Protein is crucial to bees; they use it to feed young bees and larvae in order to aid the development of muscles, glands and tissue (Somerville 2000). Worker bees also use the protein they consume to produce royal jelly, a nutritious food which is fed to the queen and queen larvae, as the jelly develops the queen’s reproductive organs, differentiating her from the worker bees (fightbugs 2017). This information proves how important protein is for the health and functioning of the colony, as the queen is the only member of the colony whose reproductive system is mature and fertile enough to have the capability to birth both female and male bees, as well as being responsible for birthing the only fertile bees in the colony; without the queen, the hive would quickly reduce in numbers and struggle to continue (fightbugs 2017).
This is a problem because although bees are able to communicate information on where to find a good source of nectar to the rest of the bees in the hive, they cannot do this with protein sources because they are not able to identify the specific protein content of the pollen they are eating (Palmer 2016).
Disease and infections