Honey Bee Update

April 08, 2010

Modern day honey bees, or “business bees” are responsible for most of the pollinating on monoculture mega farms

Modern day honey bees, or “business bees” are responsible for most of the pollinating on monoculture mega farms – large farms that raise a single crop. The bee's job is extremely important because due to habitat loss, mega farms do not have the benefit of wild bees that their smaller counterparts and home gardeners enjoy. A few years back about 40 percent of the “business bee” colonies died in both the U.S. and Europe, and scientists, bee keepers, and farmers started to panic.

The honey bee is involved in the production of about one-third of the foods that each American consumes on a daily basis. U.S. agriculture relies on honeybee pollination for anything from apples to melons to alfalfa seeds. Overall there are about 2.5 million colonies; approximately 1.2 million are needed for the almond crop alone. For all of the U.S. agriculture, (about 100 crops depend on bees) the value of the increased yield and quality achieved through pollination by business bees is approximately $14.6 billion, according to the Cornell Pollination Study.

Potential impact? A declining bee pollination population, for example, means fewer alfalfa seeds…which in turn results in a shortage in alfalfa feed – a major food source for chicken. Fewer chickens mean fewer eggs, and ultimately, higher prices for commodities on the top of the food chain, and ultimately in supermarkets.

So why did this happen? Unfortunately, there are no conclusive findings thus far. Theories include urbanization, mites, fungus, genetically modified crops, and pesticides. One of the main theories however is Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). CCD encompasses several symptoms, the most obvious being the complete absence of adult bees, with little or no build up of dead bees inside or in front of the hives, and with capped brood and food stores still remaining inside. Post abandonment, wax moth, and hive beetle attacks are noticeably delayed. In actively collapsing colonies, where the workforce is diminishing and thus not able to maintain the brood, it is commonly observed that older colony members do not consume their feed. The expected rate of yearly loss is about 20 percent- due to normal causes, but CCD is causing nearly double this loss every year.

Even with these figures, researchers point out that the losses have not yet reached a critical level. David Mendes a commercial beekeeper in Florida, as well as president of the American Beekeeping Federation – says he has been buying commercial nutrients to keep his stock healthy; an expense he has to pass on to the farmers (and ultimately consumers!). Almonds, apples, soybeans and strawberries, as well as animals that feed on them – according to Mendes- may all be a bit more expensive this year because of a shortage of bees to pollinate the trees and vines.

If problems like CCD are not abated in the future, and the honeybee population drops to devastating numbers, the potential economic impact could be huge.