Honey, We Shrunk the Bees

Pollinators play a vital role in our environment and our agricultural systems. They’re responsible for pollinating a third of the world’s crops and produce fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts that sustain a diverse and plentiful ecosystem. Butterflies, moths, wasps, flies, bats, and hummingbirds are all pollinators, but bees, both native bee species and honeybees, are considered the most important pollinators in North America. In the U.S. alone, honeybees are responsible for 80% of pollination. Honeybee pollination supports about $15 billion worth of agricultural production, including more than 130 fruits and vegetables that without bee pollination would become very scarce. The future security of America’s food supply depends on healthy honeybees.

Since World War II, the U.S. bee population has been in decline. This decline is often called Colony Collapse Disorder. The USDA released a list of potential reasons as to why the bee population has been on the decline and concluded that it is a result of a multitude of interconnected problems including pesticide and insecticide use, bee diseases, and lack of cover crops like clover and alfalfa. There has not been a conclusive study as to what the main reason is that bees are dying off, but pesticide use shows a great influence on bee population.

Since its introduction after World War II, pesticide use in the United States has increased almost every year. One pesticide in particular called neonicotinoids can be found in household bug spray as well as in industrial agricultural pesticides. These agricultural grade pesticides are applied to the seeds before the seed is planted. When the seed sprouts, the chemicals spread through the entire plant. So when an insect tries to eat the plant they will ingest the insecticide. One common crop that is sprayed with neonicotinoids before being planted is corn. How does this relate back to bee death if the bees aren’t eating corn? What happens is when the corn seeds are sprayed, the pesticide ends up landing on the plants and flowers surrounding the cornfield, as well. There is evidence to support this because large bee die offs often happen around corn planting season. The neonicotinoids, even in small doses that the bees can consume from plants surrounding the cornfields, can cause the bees to become dumbfounded or even act drunk and then they’re not able to find their way back to their hive. This poison damages the nervous system of the honeybees. Therefore, the bees are unable to communicate accurately. Communication between honeybees is essential for food sources and dangerous spots. If the infected honeybee does happen to make it back to the hive, it will most likely contaminate the entire colony. The weakened colony then dies as a result of the pesticide poison. For more information about neonicotinoids you can visit http://www.xerces.org/neonicotinoids-and-bees/ .

The USDA, in their description of Colony Collapse Disorder, doesn’t blame neonicotinoids for all bee deaths, though. Colony Collapse Disorder is a complicated issue and is also affected by bee diseases and parasites. One parasite is called the Varroa destructor mite and it’s a bloodsucking parasite that compromises the bee’s immune system and perpetuates viruses. The infection and subsequent parasitic disease is called varroosis. The Varroa mites leave the bees with open wounds that can easily lead to infection and death of honeybees.

While things are looking grim, large industries are beginning to look for ways to educate the public about the importance of bee health and help to fuel a revolution in the agriculture world. Whole Foods has partnered with The Xerces Society, a nonprofit organization that protects wildlife through the conservation of invertebrates and their habitat, to create a campaign called Share the Buzz. (Watch “Share the Buzz” video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8JZBSKvsG1U#t=63) Eric Mader, Assistant Pollinator Conservation Director at The Xerces Society, said:

“We don’t always notice it when walking down a grocery aisle, but pollinators are a critical link in our food system. More than 85% of the plant species on earth require bees and other pollinators to exist, and these plants include some of the most nutritious parts of our diet. Despite their importance, we continue to see alarming declines in bee numbers.”

One Whole Foods store in University Heights, Rhode Island, went the extra mile to show the importance of bees to its customers. The store removed all of the produce that comes from plants dependent on bees and other pollinators. The stark and barren landscape they created in the store was shocking because 52% of the store’s normal mix was taken off of the floor.

This photo is scary, but it’s not too late to save the bees. Through the partnership, Whole Foods and The Xerces Society have started to work with farmers nationwide to create wildflower habitats on field edges and adopt less pesticide-intensive practices. (More info here: http://www.wholefoodsmarket.com/sharethebuzz)

If honeybees, and many of the other bee species, become further endangered we will see extravagant spikes in fruit and vegetable costs and eventually many of the foods we take for granted would no longer be able to be produced, especially at the rate at which we need to produce them to sustain our global population. While large corporations are making changes what can you do to help in your own backyard? You can plant bee-friendly flowers and avoid pesticide contamination. Search for plants and wildflowers that are native to your area and spread them throughout your garden and community. Bees need flowers that bloom throughout the growing season so a diverse garden is an easy way to start helping bees. Planting flowers may seem like a small step, but when bees have the fuel they need to live they are better able to pollinate the crops we need to survive. A final easy way to help bees is to choose organic produce that is grown without toxic pesticides. When you buy organic, you’re supporting farms that choose to promote healthy ecosystems and are not harming bees in the process.

Albert Einstein once said, “No more bees, no more men…” And he was right.


Charles, Dan. “Are agriculture’s most popular insecticides killing our bees?” NPR: All Things Considered. 25 Mar. 2013. Podcast.

Greenpeace. “Bees in Decline: A review of factors that put pollinators and agriculture in Europe at risk.”  Greenpeace Research Laboratories. 2 Jan. 2013. Web.

Hopwood, Jennifer, et al. “Are Neonicotinoids Killing Bees? A review of research into the effects of neonicotinoid insecticides on bees, with recommendations for action.” The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation. Mar. 2012. Web.

Kaplan, Kim. “Honeybees and Colony Collapse Disorder.” United States Department of Agriculture: Agriculture Research Service. 12 Feb. 2012. Web.

Whole Foods. “This is what your grocery store looks like without honeybees.” Whole Foods Newsroom. 14 Jun. 2014. Web.

I0893407About the author: Aislinn Leonard is a senior Communication and Journalism AND French, Modern, and Classical Languages double major at the University of St. Thomas

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One Response to Honey, We Shrunk the Bees

  1. Pingback: The End of Growth? Perspectives from an Aquinas Honors seminar | Sustain

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