THE BLOG
09/10/2014 12:34 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2014

You Need to Know: What Colony Collapse Means for Our Food Supply

The ultimate who-done-it of our time is not a scandalous political act or John Grisham plot line, but the story of honey bees. 40 percent of bee colonies vanished during the winter of 2006, and another 36 percent departed the winter after. Why? Years later, there is still no clear answer, but what we do know is that honey bees are essential for the continued functioning of our food system. Here is all you need to know about what's happening to the United States honey bee population.

Why do we care about bees?

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that "out of some 100 crop species which provide 90 percent of food worldwide, 71 of these are bee-pollinated." Some say bees are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we eat. Bee pollination work is worth $365 billion each year.

So what's happening to the bees?

They are dying. A lot. And it's bad. Beginning in 2006, record numbers of honeybees began dying during the winter months. It is common to lose roughly ten to fifteen percent of a hive during winter, but in recent years that percentage has more than doubled.

What does that mean for us?

"Certainly the loss of all bees would result in catastrophic cascades through the terrestrial ecosystems of the world," writes melittologist (aka bee scientist) Laurence Packer. "If many of the flowering plants were to disappear, the other species that rely upon those plants would also be in trouble. How many squirrels would there be without the nuts that result from pollination by bees? How many songbirds would there be without the berries that result from pollination by bees? No squirrels and no songbirds means no predators that eat the squirrels and songbirds. So the impact of bees extends throughout the food web--even to us."

That's crazy. What's killing the bees?

No one knows. For now, the loss is called Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. Theories of CCD range from pesticide use to cell-phone towers. The top theories are as follows:

  • Pesticides. Pesticides and insecticides prevail as the leading suspicion of scientists regarding bee death. It is thought that the chemicals seep into plant nectar, then the bee, and debilitate the bee immune system, making them susceptible to disease.
  • Monocultures. Bees often pollinate one plant for an entire season. Half of the honey bee hives in the United States pollinate almonds each year. How would you feel if you were eating the same thing all the time? Plus, wildflower fields are swiftly decreasing, greatly limiting diversity on the pollen buffet.
  • Disease. For a bit European foulbrood disease was thought to be the culprit but this theory was later debunked in several studies. The possibility of disease, though, is not ruled out. Viruses are being heavily investigated.

Is there a leading pesticide suspected of causing CCD?

Some are pointing their fingers directly at one insecticide, neonicotinoids, and others are saying no way. Last year, the European Commission began a two-year ban on neonicotinoids for research purposes while the United States is conducting a five-year review on the topic. Some argue that the chemical is extremely harmful to bees' immune systems; others say it makes them unable to find their way home, and others say that neonicotinoids are far less dangerous than other pesticides. Basically, the jury is still out, not just on what pesticide, but if pesticides are even the cause of CCD.

Why is this so hard to figure out?

Bees travel, meaning there are just too many factors in play for scientists to easily nail down the main cause of CCD. Plus, there are nearly 20,000 species of honey bee. Woah.

Is this just an issue in the United States?

Unfortunately, no. At study by the European Commission revealed higher than normal bee mortality rates in eleven European countries, and bees in the north of Europe seemed to be dying at very high rates.

What can I do?

Great question. Several things! First, plant bee-friendly flowers. Many environmental enthusiasts have begun to keep bees, but the food sources for bees are dwindling. Plant things like lavender, marjoram, or lilacs before you put a hive on your roof. Support your local bee keepers by purchasing local honey. According to Laurence Packer, "North American beekeepers now make most of their income from renting out hives for crop pollination rather than from selling honey," as bees are in demand and lower-cost international honey floods the market. Lastly, pay attention to these great organizations that are working to save world bee populations.

Originally published on PlateOnline.com.

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