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Why are bees so important to sustaining life on Earth?

Updated on June 12, 2014

A Bumble Bee quietly enjoying itself

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Bees. Honey bees, bumble bees, those pesky little buggers with the stinger on their behind. What ever you want to call them. Our little yellow and brown friends, who happily bumble around, doing their thing, playing their part in the eco system, are in trouble. Some people often mistake these little guys as being a pest and dangerous, associating them with their pure evil lookalikes, the wasp. But that isn’t the case so much as they generally aren’t going to outwardly attack someone for no reason, as they will die once the attack has been carried out.

It might come as a surprise to you, but they are actually very important to sustaining human life on this planet, as far as the natural production of food goes. Pollination for plants is essential to their survival; birds, insects and bats carry out this process in their respective environments (i.e. Insects don’t live at high altitudes, so birds and bats carry out the process there). Out of the insect pollinators, bees are the most active, which makes their survival all the more important. The bees gather the nectar that plants and flowers produce, to take back to the hive so it can be turned into honey. While doing this, the pollen from the plant or flower inadvertently gets attached to the bee’s hairy bodies. When the bee flies to another plant, the pollen gets rubbed off and thus pollenates the next plant. This is called a mutualistic relationship. The bees get to eat, and the plants get to reproduce. A benefit for both parties involved. This relationship between bees and plants has an effect on 1/3 of all of the food that mankind relies on, worldwide, according to the US. Department of Agriculture.

This massive reliance that the human race has on the expectation of the bees to carry out their natural existence puts a great importance on trying to figure out why, all of a sudden, the bees are disappearing in great numbers. In June of this year, beekeeper Dave Schuit, who had lost bees from 600 hives, found 37 million bees dead in Ontario, Canada. (msn now 7/2/2013) Although this is a record-breaking find, this kind of occurrence is becoming more and more common. But just what is it that is killing off the bees? The main culprit could be improperly used and tested pesticides, which are having an unwanted effect on the bees. The pesticides in question here are neonicotinoids, which are generally used when planting corn crops. A recent situation in Florida in the USA, where a farmer had been illegally spraying to kill Asian citrus psyllid, an insect pest, resulted in the deaths of millions of bees, impacting the production of honey for many beekeepers in the area, as well as taking a toll on the eco system in the area. The man was fined $1,500, which is a kind of slap on the wrist when considering the bigger picture of the damages that he has caused. (Miami New Times: T. Elfrink, 2013)

Apart from the effect that humans are having on the population of bees around the globe, there are increasingly more instances arising where entire colonies of bees are dying for seemingly no reason, vanishing from their hives, known as Colony Collapse Disorder. This has scientists baffled, and intent on tracking down the exact reason why this is happening. Some warning signs and symptoms include:

  • Presence of capped brood in abandoned colonies. Bees normally will not abandon a hive until the capped brood have all hatched.
  • Presence of food stores, both honey and bee pollen:
    • i. which are not immediately robbed by other bees
    • ii. which when attacked by hive pests such as wax moth and small hive beetle, the attack is noticeably delayed.
  • Presence of the queen bee. If the queen is not present, the hive died because it was queenless, which is not considered CCD.

Precursor symptoms that may arise before the final colony collapse are:

  • Insufficient workforce to maintain the brood that is present
  • Workforce seems to be made up of young adult bees
  • The colony members are reluctant to consume provided feed, such as sugar syrup and protein supplement.

(Dennis vanEngelsdorp, Diana Cox-Foster, Maryann Frazier, Nancy Ostiguy, and Jerry Hayes (5 January 2006). "Colony Collapse Disorder Preliminary Report". Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium (MAAREC) – CCD Working Group. p. 22)

Possible causes of these losses could be: malnutrition, pathogens, immunodeficiencies, mites, fungus, pesticides, beekeeping practices (such as the use of antibiotics, or long-distance transportation of beehives) and electromagnetic radiation. But whether any single factor or combination of factors is responsible is still unknown as of yet.

Loss of population during the winter months is not uncommon, in fact it is expected. However, the size of the loss is the worrying factor. The usual loss of population lays around 15-20%. In recent years, losses of up to 50% have been recorded. This is putting major stress on the remaining population to continue to procreate more and more in order to sustain the population through the following winter.

The importance of this issue stems far further than the environmental impact. The survival of the bees on planet Earth is imperative to the survival of mankind, and countless other species who rely on the fruits of their labour. Without these friendly insects around to pollenate the plants that we take for granted, we would be in trouble, not being able to sufficiently feed our ever-growing population. More money, and more time needs to be invested in investigating the causes and solutions to this situation, by the appropriate authorities. And the sooner this happens, the better off we will be in the long run.

© 2014 Grant Bowker-Bell

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    • mgeorge1050 profile image

      Alan 

      4 years ago from West Georgia

      Great article about bees. I wish more people would realize how important bees are to humans. I am a new beekeeper and part of the reason I started keeping bees was because of their recent troubles. It is great to see them on the flowers around my house and in my organic garden.

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