When you think of bees, what comes to mind? Your favorite lip balm? Liquid gold on your pancakes? Faux-German packaged ice-cream? Perhaps you thought of little, black-and-yellow jobs buzzing around during the summer. Bees, in all their buzzing glory, have been hit hard by climate change, an impact that translates to us humans more directly than at first glance.
Bees are a major constituent of animal pollinators which support the pollination and yield production of 70% of crop species worldwide (1). More specifically, pollination-dependent agriculture in the US drives tremendous economic value, ranging from $14 – $23 billion, with cascading impacts on industrial sectors ranging from $10 – $21 billion (2).
Bees have long been considered a keystone species which hold entire ecosystems together. Their ability to pollinate a variety of plant species ensures genetic variation and growth from the literal ground up. While several companies have capitalized on our buzzing friends, the farmer cooperatives on the front lines of beekeeping have been directly exposed to the impact of the declining health of bee colonies.
Climate change has negatively impacted bee populations with large numbers of colonies dying off each year (3).
While a whole host of factors have led to a decline in bee populations, two are particularly salient with regards to climate change:
- Pollination Season: Climate change impacts the seasonal signal of spring. Warm temperatures trigger plants to flower and pollinators to begin work. But global warming has caused mild winters and the earlier onset of spring (4). The result is plants flowering earlier but pollinators have yet to catch up (5). This mismatch – the months of greatest pollinator activity occur after peak plant flowering – cuts both ways, impeding plant reproduction by limiting pollination and preventing bees from building and storing food for the hive, resulting in starved colonies. Malnourished colonies produce less honey and have a decreased likelihood of surviving through the next winter.
- Infection: Bees get sick too. Changing temperatures mean that the pests and pathogens which impact bees have a longer lifespan and active season, and can therefore, decrease bee colony survivability (6). In particular, species of parasitic mites, viruses, and microsporidia agents have been identified as the primary offenders (7)
Beekeeping cooperatives have struggled to catch up. Since the mid-2000s, keepers have seen a 30% – 45% year-over-year decline in honey bee colonies (8, 9). This dramatic decrease trouble small farmers and big agriculture alike, spurring even President Obama to announce his program to promote pollinator health in 2015. To counter colony die-offs, farmers and keepers split hives each year in hopes of redistributing remaining bees into pastures that have the highest likelihood of supporting large colonies. Additionally, keepers have deployed pesticides, medications, and anti-parasitic chemical regimens to maximize the probability that hives survive into the next season. Chemical counter measures have a dual effect in that active ingredients often negatively impact colony health (10). Furthermore, the pesticides and herbicides used on crops weaken the bee’s ability to fight off infection. For the farmer, colony maintenance has increased in cost without a guarantee of healthy hives. In short, higher risk of investment has not been matched with a commensurate reward – keepers are simply hoping to maintain current colony levels and stop colony collapse. Decreasing colony counts also threaten crop yields. The $2 billion almond farming industry in California alone relies on more than 1 million bees for pollination (11). In the end, these expensive tactics are simply putting a band aid on the fundamental causes which are rooted in the environment and climate.
To drastically alter the equation for beekeepers, new approaches should be considered:
- Genetic Modification: The food industry has already seen the rise of genetically modified fish (12, 13) and crops (14, 15) which hold potential for providing foodstuffs for a rapidly increasing population. The ability to genetically modify bees and their target plants to optimize for pollination and pathogen resistance would help to increase colony survivability.
- Cross-breeding: The majority of honey bees in industrial production belong to the species Apis mellifera. Studies have shown that other subspecies have shown resistance to mites and viruses (16). Introducing anti-pest bees alongside at-risk colonies may help transfer genes that may help improve colony resilience.
- Pollinator Diversification: While bees are the most prolific pollinators, butterflies and bats also contribute to crop pollination. Adopting new animal pollinators could also assuage the seasonality gaps with bees. However, cultivating colonies of alternative pollinators large enough to service industrial-scale farms requires high upfront investment and high cost in managing different pollinator species.
Solving colony collapse requires a multi-pronged approach from a range of organizations. Ultimately, the humble bee reminds us of how small, unnoticeable changes in the environment can have lasting effects on global industries. [Word count excl. citations: 785]
- González-Varo JP, Biesmeijer JC, Bommarco R, Potts SG, Schweiger O, Smith HG, et al. Combined effects of global change pressures on animal-mediated pollination. Trends in Ecology & Evolution. 2013;28(9):524-30.
- Chopra SS, Bakshi BR, Khanna V. Economic dependence of us industrial sectors on animal-mediated pollination service. Environ Sci Technol. 2015;49(24):14441-51.
- Ellis JD, Evans JD, Pettis J. Colony losses, managed colony population decline, and Colony Collapse Disorder in the United States. J Apic Res. 2010;49(1):134-6.
- Parmesan C. Ecological and evolutionary responses to recent climate change. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics. 2006:637-69.
- Memmott J, Craze PG, Waser NM, Price MV. Global warming and the disruption of plant–pollinator interactions. Ecol Lett. 2007;10(8):710-7.
- Vanbergen AJ, Insect PI. Threats to an ecosystem service: pressures on pollinators. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 2013;11(5):251-9.
- Dainat B, Evans JD, Chen YP, Gauthier L, Neumann P. Predictive markers of honey bee colony collapse. PLoS one. 2012;7(2):e32151.
- Vanengelsdorp D, Caron D, Hayes J, Underwood R, Henson M, Rennich K, et al. A national survey of managed honey bee 2010–11 winter colony losses in the USA: results from the Bee Informed Partnership. J Apic Res. 2012;51(1):115-24.
- Lee KV, Steinhauer N, Rennich K, Wilson ME, Tarpy DR, Caron DM, et al. A national survey of managed honey bee 2013–2014 annual colony losses in the USA. Apidologie. 2015;46(3):292-305.
- Bchler R, Costa C, Hatjina F, Andonov S, Meixner MD, Conte YL, et al. The influence of genetic origin and its interaction with environmental effects on the survival of Apis mellifera L. colonies in Europe. J Apic Res. 2014;53(2):205-14.
- Ratnieks FL, Carreck NL. Clarity on honey bee collapse? Science. 2010;327(5962):152-3.
- WANG D. Implications of US GMO Salmon approved for commercial food use. Chinese Science Bulletin. 2016;61(3):289-95.
- Le Conte Y, Navajas M. Climate change: impact on honey bee populations and diseases. Revue Scientifique et Technique-Office International des Epizooties. 2008;27(2):499-510.
- Wree P, Sauer J. High Yield Genetically Modified Wheat in Germany: Socio Economic Assessment of its Potential. 55th Annual Conference, Giessen, Germany, September 23-25, 2015; German Association of Agricultural Economists (GEWISOLA); 2015.
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- Stallins JA. Honey Bees and Colony Collapse Disorder: A Pluralistic Reframing: Honey Bees and Colony Collapse Disorder. 2016.