Why Dead Honeybees Means the Beginning of the Apocalypse

Learn why bees are dying off, how this affects your food supply, and what you can do about it before it’s too late.

Lee Falin, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #58

Why Dead Honeybees Means the Beginning of the Apocalypse

Prior to moving to England, I was a beekeeper for a few years. When I took my “Intro to Beekeeping” course at the local college, there was a lot of concern about bees dying off. The big threat to bees at the time was a little mite called Varroa destructor (one could expect trouble from a bug with that kind of name). Recent research has shown that Varroa mites are only part of a larger problem called colony collapse disorder, wherein entire colonies of bees suddenly die off for unknown reasons. If you’re thinking, “Meh, good riddance. I don’t like bees anyway,” you’d better think again. Because if the bees go, we all go.;

The End of the World as We Know It

Would we really die if bees died off? Maybe you wouldn’t die, but you sure would be hungry. Bees are the pollinators for an enormous list of foods. Apples, almonds, pears, blackberries, raspberries, blueberries, and many other fruits are all pollinated by bees.

“That’s okay,” you think, “I don’t really like fruits or nuts anyway, I’d rather have a nice candy bar.” Well too bad for you. While they aren’t the primary pollinators, bees are major contributors to the pollination of cocoa, vanilla, and coconut. Without bees, the yields of these crops would be extremely low, making the raw ingredients of most candy bars extremely scarce. And you might remember from your basic economics class that when a lot of people what something that is scarce, prices tend to go way up.

Mighty Mites

So what’s behind colony collapse disorder (CCD)? For a long time, researchers were looking for a single cause of CCD, something that could easily be fixed. Now they’re starting to realize that CCD is most likely caused by several different things, a perfect storm of bee killing effects, that result in entire colonies of bees disappearing.

Mites are a big (figuratively speaking) part of the problem. The Varroa mite, sometimes called the bee vampire mite, reproduces inside beehives and survives by sucking on the bees’ equivalent of blood. During this process, the mites spread various viruses to the honeybee larvae which can result in them dying off completely, or being born with deformities that prevent them from flying or gathering pollen.

Various methods have been developed over the years to combat the mites, including modifying the way hives are built to make it more difficult for mites to stay in the hive, using chemicals to kill of the mites, and breeding bees that are genetically resistant to the viruses transmitted by Varroa mites.

See Also: What Is Interspecies Breeding?

“Hygienic” bee breeds that have a special sensitivity to mites have also been developed. When they detect a larvae infected with the mite, they kick it out of the hive completely in a show of family solidarity. (The next time you get the flu, be thankful that your family aren’t as hygienic as bees).


Please note that archive episodes of this podcast may include references to Ask Science. Rights of Albert Einstein are used with permission of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Represented exclusively by Greenlight.

About the Author

Lee Falin, PhD

Dr. Lee Falin earned a B.S. in Computer Science from the University of Illinois, then went on to obtain a Ph.D. in Genetics, Bioinformatics, and Computational Biology from Virginia Tech.