Human Reliance on Bees

Humans have been using bees as a resource for ages. Bees are mainly used for honey collection and pollination purposes. Through bees, human society has gained not only honey, which is a valuable source of calories, but also they have gained the ability to grow various fruits and vegetables for human consumption. With these things in mind, it is easy to see how important bees are for human life. Despite this, people have failed to keep bee populations from declining. Ever since World War 2, bee populations in the US and around the world have been constantly and consistently diminishing. There are several reasons for this, most of which revolve around changes in agriculture practices. Another issue currently being explored is the effect of specific pesticides on bees. Bees are an essential part of human life, yet humans are the biggest threat to bees as a whole.

While there is no precise estimate on when humans started utilizing bees as a resource, cave paintings showing things such as honey collection, honeycombs, and bees have been found around the world and can be dated as far back as 40,000 years ago (Wayman). These days, bees that are kept by commercial beekeepers produce honey and then that honey is sold for human use. In some places, like the Dakotas or California, honey production is a large source of income. In addition to this, there are businesses that rent large quantities of bees for pollination purposes. Farmers with a large plot of land filled with crops that are required to be pollinated by bees, such as almonds or grapes, are able to rent colonies of bees. The colonies are stored in boxes, which are transported by truck to the farm. The bees are then released to pollinate the plants, and when this is finished, the bees are loaded back onto the truck and taken back. Each year in the US, over half a billion dollars in pollination fees are collected, and as bee populations continue to drop, these pollination fees are rising (Bond, Plattner, and Hunt PAGE). With this in mind, it makes sense that human society would want the bee population to increase. An increase in the bee population would allow pollination and honey prices to drop, which in turn would allow the prices of certain foods to drop as well. With more food at a lower price, human society as a whole would benefit.

Although renting bees for pollination is profitable, society as a whole benefits more from the act of pollination itself. Without bees, crops such as carrots, cucumbers, apples, onions, broccoli, and cotton would no longer be available. “[Bees] are critical pollinators: they pollinate 70 of the around 100 crop species that feed 90% of the world” (“What Would Happen If Bees Went Extinct?”). Bees supply an enormous amount of produce, so without them it may not be possible to sustain the current human population. Without bees, produce would become scarce, and in turn, expensive. In addition, although cotton is not something comes to mind when people think of plants that must be pollinated, it is an exceptionally important crop and it is pollinated by bees. Many of the fabrics that make up clothing are made from cotton, and cottonseed is also fed to cattle. The extinction of bees would result in not only a drop in available clothing, but it could also affect the number of cattle available, further affecting the food supply. With fewer cattle, there would be a decrease in dairy products as well as meat, making the task of feeding the human population even more difficult. With fewer fruits and vegetables, less meat, and fewer dairy products available, it is difficult to imagine that the current human population could be sustained.

It is clear that human life relies heavily on bees, yet each change in agriculture seems to have a negative impact on bees. The bee population started declining around the same time that World War II ended, and during that same time, the first big changes in agriculture was taking place. The first was the switch to synthetic fertilizers. Before World War II, farmers would plant clover and alfalfa as what were called ground cover plants because those plants are natural fertilizers. This was good for the bees because bees are able to feed off of those plants (Spivak). When farmers switched to synthetic fertilizers and stopped planting cover plants, bees could no longer live in farmlands. With only a few crops to choose from, and those suitable food crops only blooming at a specific time of year, it became very difficult for bees to survive in or near farms.

Another change that came with World War II was the use of herbicides. These herbicides kill weeds growing around crops. “Many of these weeds are flowering plants that bees require for their survival” (Spivak). Weeds that could grow alongside crops would provide nutrition for the bees as they passed through parts of a farm that did not have crops that they could feed on. Unfortunately, those weeds are undesirable for farmers because they competed with the crops that the farmers were trying to grow. However, without those weeds, a large area of land that used to be a great place for bees to feed became a food desert.

This problem became even worse as farmers began using more land for only one crop, a practice called monoculture. As farmers started adopting the monoculture practice, they created large plots of land where bees had no plants to feed on unless that one crop that the farmer had planted was in bloom. Even if the farmer planted a crop that bees feed on, it is only in bloom during a specific time of year, leaving the bees without food for the majority of each year. Because of this, bees were no longer able to inhabit farms. For bees, this was a form of habitat loss, which had a serious impact on the bee population as a whole. Now that bees are incapable of living in harmony with farms, farmers are forced to rent bee colonies from commercial beekeepers. Truckloads of bees must be transported in boxes, which is not only stressful for the bees, but also expensive for the farm owner.

These problems became even worse with the introduction of stronger and more versatile pesticides. Pesticides differ from herbicides and insecticides in that they are able to kill not only weeds and insects, but also bacteria, fungi, or other organisms. Pesticides allow farmers to increase crop production by reducing competition with weeds or keeping pests from feeding on the plants, but some pesticides can be harmful to bees. When bees take pollen to their colony as food, at least six different pesticides can be found in each load of pollen that the bee brings back to its hive (Spivak). This means that all of the bees in the colony are being exposed to pesticides. If any ingredient included in the pesticides is particularly harmful to bees, it could potentially harm a large portion of the colony if not the entire colony.

In addition, there is a relatively new class of pesticides called neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids are different from other pesticides in that they move through the plant. Typically, the seeds are coated in the pesticide and as the plant grows, the pesticide continues to move through the plant. Lately there has been a lot of controversy over these pesticides and their potential relation to something called Colony Collapse Disorder. Colony Collapse Disorder is a strange phenomenon in which bees disappear from their hives during the winter. “…although other studies have suggested that CCD-related mortality in honey bee colonies may come from bees’ reduced resistance to mites or parasites as a result of exposure to pesticides, the new study found that bees in the hives exhibiting CCD had almost identical levels of pathogen infestation as a group of control hives, most of which survived the winter. This finding suggests that the neonicotinoids are causing some other kind of biological mechanism in bees that in turn leads to CCD” (“Study Strengthens Link…”). While it is not yet clear exactly why these pesticides are affecting bees the way they do, it is generally accepted that they are harmful to bees. Despite this, these pesticides continue to be used throughout the US. In the EU, however, neonicotinoids have been partially banned as a result of concern for bee populations. Unfortunately, several member states have been granting derogations to farmers who wish to use the banned products, which has mitigated the effects of the ban. This ban was only set to last for a short time until how neonicotinoids affect bees is better known.

While it is clear that something needs to be done to protect the bee population, actually fixing the problem will be complicated since it involves not only banning certain pesticides, but also changing current agricultural methods. It was because of bee activists that the EU was able to ban certain pesticides, but derogations for farm owners have allowed the problem to continue. In the US, business is also indirectly involved in politics, and so harmful pesticides will continue to be used. As Ann Cvetkovich said, “…trauma forges overt connections between politics and emotion” (pg 3). As the bee population continues to decline, food prices will rise, and the issue of hunger will cause current agricultural methods to be forced to be reconsidered. Once people are fully aware of how seriously the decline in the bee population will affect them, they will surely fight for a change.

In the past 70 years, the bee population has significantly declined, mostly due to changes in agricultural practice. Fortunately there is still hope for them. As research on pesticides continues, certain classes of pesticides will be banned, allowing the bee population to once again increase. If a time ever comes that the bee population becomes dangerously small, it will not take long to see the effects that a world without bees would have. Such an event would quickly result in changes to human farming methods, and a new appreciation for all that bees do. On a personal level, everyone can help sustain the bee population by planting bee friendly flowers and refraining from the use of pesticides in personal gardens. For everything bees do for humans, they should at least be allowed to remain unharmed as they pollinate peoples’ gardens.

 


 

Works Cited

Bond, Jennifer, Kristy Plattner, and Kevin Hunt. “Fruit and Tree Nuts Outlook: Economic Insight.” U.S. Pollination-Services Market (2014): n. pag. USDA. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.

Cvetkovich, Ann. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2003. Print.

Spivak, Marla. “Why Bees Are Disappearing.” TED. June 2013. Lecture.

“Study Strengthens Link between Neonicotinoids and Collapse of Honey Bee Colonies.” Harvard School of Public Health. Harvard University, 19 May 2014. Web. 01 May 2015.

Wayman, Erin. “Humans, the Honey Hunters.” Smithsonian.com. Smithsonian, 19 Dec. 2011. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.

“What Would Happen If Bees Went Extinct?” BBC Future. BBC, 03 May 2014. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.

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