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Why Do We Need to Save the Bees?

Wild bee populations are at risk. Why are wild bee colonies in decline, why is it a big deal, and how can you help? First, step away from the pesticides.

By
Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #385
save the bees
The Quick And Dirty

Bees are essential. As pollinators, they play a primary role in our food security. But wild bee populations are in decline. Researchers have suggested an investment in large-scale solutions such as managed honeybee colonies to offset the decline in wild bee populations. You can also play a role in protecting our pollinators by planting a native plant garden and avoiding the use of pesticides.

The honey bee, with its fuzzy midsection and black and yellow striped bottom, tends to be the poster child for bees. But actually, there are more than 20,000 species of bees worldwide. Many crops depend on both wild bees and managed species of honey bees for their pollination. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, almost 75 percent of global crop production (that translates to 87 of our leading food crops worldwide) depend on pollinators like bees.

Bee populations are at risk. What is happening to the bees and what will happen if they continue to disappear?

But honeybee hives have recently suffered from what’s called widespread colony collapse disorder, dropping from 5.9 million colonies as measured by the US Department of Agriculture back in 1947 to 2.44 million colonies in 2008. That’s over half the colonies gone in 60 years. There has been some regaining in numbers since this low point, but bee populations are still at risk. What is happening to the bees and what will happen if they continue to disappear?

Why are bee populations declining?

Our relationship with bees is largely mutually beneficial. Bees visit certain flowering plants for their nutrition. They get protein, vitamins, and minerals from the pollen and carbohydrates from the nectar. In turn, during their visits, they provide an important service. That pollen sticks to their fuzzy backsides and to their wings. As they move about, they transfer pollen to another part of the plant or to an entirely different plant. The result is fertilization, which allows the plant to produce seeds and ultimately reproduce. 

Of course, bees produce the honey that sweetens our tea. Along with that, they produce propolis—a sticky resin or bee glue that's used in traditional medicine. They have special glands in their stomachs that produce beeswax. They chew the beeswax into specific shapes to build their honeycombs, and we use it for candles, lip balms, hand creams, hair pomades … the list goes on.

Pesticide use is so widespread that one study found that every batch of pollen they tested had at least six detectable pesticides in it.

But a list of interconnected reasons has caused bee populations to decline. For starters, after World War II, we moved from planting cover crops like clover and alfalfa as natural fertilizers to using synthetic fertilizers instead. This leads to monoculture farming practices where bees have to be trucked in to pollinate a single crop but then trucked out once the season is over because all that is left behind is a flowerless landscape. In the same timeframe, we’ve also moved toward using more pesticides to kill weeds, but those weeds once also fed the bees. Pesticide use is so widespread that one study found that every batch of pollen they tested had at least six detectable pesticides in it. Combine these problems with soaring temperatures, and even wildfires thanks to climate change, and you create a recipe for disaster for the bees. 

Bees are pollinators

With bee populations in dangerous decline, scientists are now trying to figure out just how much crop production, and ultimately food security, depend on pollination from bees. Hand pollination—pollination by humans using their own hands—does happen. Any of you with your own tomato plants may have already used a petal tickler. And yes, that's just what it sounds like—a vibrating wand used to encourage the tomato plant to offer up its pollen for pollination. But hand pollination is labor-intensive, time-consuming, and often less effective than what the bees can do.

Hand pollination is labor-intensive, time-consuming, and often less effective than what the bees can do.

To get a sense of how dependent we are on bee pollinators, one particularly comprehensive study from July 2020 looked at crop yields for 131 large, commercial farms across the United States and Canada. Researchers linked the abundance of bees to the level of production at those farms of seven pollinator-dependent crops: blueberries, apples, sweet and tart cherries, almonds, watermelons, and pumpkins. For four of the seven crops, they found significant limitations in crop production when pollinator populations were limited. Among the most affected were tart cherries in Michigan, sweet cherries in Washington, apples in Pennsylvania, and blueberries in Oregon. The crops that did not show a clear impact were the watermelon, pumpkin, and almond. 

For the seven crops in this single study, the wild bee population contributes a boost in production valued at an estimated $1.5 billion or more in the United States alone. More global estimates that include all animal pollinators, like bats, butterflies, and hummingbirds, suggest losses of $235 to $577 billion each year without them. And I don’t know about you, but I would like to be able to continue eating apples and blueberries, along with other pollinator-dependent crops like broccoli, cucumbers, and peaches. 

Pollinators play a direct role in our food security.

And these delicious foods aren’t just nice to have. Pollinators play a direct role in our food security. As the world’s population continues to grow, pollinators like bees help us produce enough food through sustainable methods. They also help smaller farms thrive which further helps meet demands for nutrient-rich foods and supports the livelihoods of those farmers. 

How can you help the bees?

The authors of the seven-crop study suggest that some larger-scale solutions to the decline in wild pollinators, like an investment in managed honeybee populations, could help offset the decline in wild pollinators. They point out that most recommendations for “stocking densities” (in other words, how many honey bees a grower purchases at the start of the season to be set loose on their crop) were last updated decades ago when crop production was much lower. 

Plant a garden with bees in mind. Choose milkweed, wildflowers, and other native plants, and avoid using pesticides.

But even in areas where agriculture is a focus, the managed and wild bee populations contribute comparable levels of pollination. So what can we individuals do to help the bees? 

If you have access to an outdoor spot, you can plant a garden with bees in mind. Choose milkweed, wildflowers, and other native plants, and avoid using pesticides. The US Fish and Wildlife Service offers great advice on how to get your garden started, from how to pick a location and what type of soil to use to how to nurture your freshly planted seeds. No petal ticklers required!

About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.