A Life Without Bees: How One Insect Poses an Unimaginable Threat to Global Food Security
While many may think of bees as the annoying pests that swarm our summertime barbeques, or the insects that give us painful stings, they are actually one of the most vital caretakers of our planet’s ecosystem. As the world’s primary plant pollinators, bees not only ensure that our gardens look beautiful, but also that the food we eat is able to grow. It is estimated that one third of all the food in the world is pollinator dependent. That means that one in every three bites of food we consume requires the assistance of a bee to grow. Not only are bees vital to the food we eat, but they also contribute over £400 million to the British economy and over $15 billion to the US economy every year. However, the fate of the bees is currently hanging in the balance.
Last year, a study found that in the United States, honeybee farmers lost four of every ten hives they owned-- accounting for 37% of the total US bee population. Last winter was the worst loss of bee population on record since the study began thirteen years ago. The causes? The first is a phenomenon that began in 2006 which scientists call Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). CCD is when the majority of worker bees in a hive inexplicably abandon the hive leaving only the queen and a few nursing bees behind to fend for themselves. Without the worker bees, the hive can no longer function, so the entire colony collapses and the bees eventually die off. Another major cause of bee death can be attributed to an increase in the parasitic Varroa Mite-- an insect that, when it bites, releases a virus into the bees that will cause deformities in their wings and their eventual death. However, while CCD and Varroa Mites have been grave problems for bees in the past, more recently, bees are starting to disappear because of global warming, pesticides, loss of habitat, drought, and decreasing plant diversity.
While our changing climate may not be the most pressing reason for bee decline, it is hurting bee populations in more ways than we may initially think. First, rising temperatures mean that winters become shorter, snow melts quicker, and spring comes earlier. This is a huge problem for bees because when spring flowers arrive too early, bees will mistime their pollination. Like bears, bees actually hibernate in the wintertime. Usually, bees come out of hibernation at the same time as spring flowers start to bloom. However, rising temperatures have recently caused flowers to bloom earlier which, in turn, has caused the bees to miss their opportunity to pollinate. This is not only a huge problem for bee populations but also for plant health. If a plant goes unpollinated, it will not be able to produce seeds and will eventually die. So, if the bees miss the opportunity to pollinate our fruits and vegetables, those plants will die, and our food supply will rapidly decrease. Second, changing temperatures have also restricted the areas where bees can survive-- completely altering their viable habitats. Because of altered temperatures, it is estimated that “bees have lost a range of up to nearly 200 miles in both North America and Europe.” As bees run out of migratory locations, they will slowly begin to die off, producing a huge threat to food security.
Although food security is one of the major international problems of our time, it is not normally associated with bee vitality. However, as these tiny members of our ecosystem become more and more threatened, so does the entirety of our food production industry. Without this miniature pollinator, the food we need to survive would no longer be able to grow. Although bees will by no means cure world hunger, they are a vital part of our agricultural system, and without them, we would not be able to enjoy the fruits and vegetables we have today. So when considering the fate of food security in the future, be sure to think of the bees and how to protect them against a dire future because life as we know it will not be the same without them.