To you, bees may be pests and annoyances. Their round insect bodies, extending antennae and deep, reflective eyes may even inspire fear in you. However, don’t be afraid (unless you have an allergy)! There are nearly 20,000 known species of bees, all helping to pollinate our world and produce a great deal of the food we eat every day. Without bees, the environment would cease to exist as it does today! And, unfortunately, wild and domestic honey bees are close to extinction.
Chances are, everything you know about bee extinction may have come from “Black Mirror.” I, too, did not know much about bee extinction until a bee died right in front of my eyes. Camping in the coastal California redwoods, I was reading at a picnic table, aided by the light of a candle, when a honey bee, equally as attracted to the light as I was, flew right into the flame. Its burning body convulsed in the hot wax and I frantically tried to save it, but there was nothing I could do. Feeling guilty that I had just contributed to the impending bee extinction, I researched everything I could do to help bee populations.
First, it is important to realize that honey bees do not just produce honey for the consumption of humans. Honey bees have complex life cycles and have been working to pollinate the world for millions of years. Humans only started taking advantage of the production of this sweet syrup a few thousand years ago.
Wild honey bees are the ultimate symbiotic beings. Needing pollen in order to produce their own food, bees are constantly flitting and flapping around to cross-pollinate flowers, which allows fruits and vegetables to grow in addition to contributing to the genetic diversity of flowers. This benefits not only veggie-loving humans but also other herbivores by producing a stable food source. Honey produced by bees attracts not only Pooh-esque bears, but also bats, birds, raccoons, skunks, opossums and other insects.
Honey bees are both producers and indicators of current environmental conditions. “Since 1962,” According to melittologists (bee scientists) Giorgio Celli and Bettina Maccagnani, “the bee has been increasingly employed to monitor environmental pollution by heavy metals in territorial and urban surveys, pesticides in rural areas and also radionuclide presence in the environment” (Bulletin of Insectology, “Honey Bees as Bioindicators of Environmental Pollution,” 2003). Because of their abundance and their interactions with their local environments, bees are perfect for evaluating the general health of ecosystems. Mass death of bees or harmful chemical residue in honey, pollen and larvae indicates that toxic chemicals exist in the environment (Bulletin of Insectology). Though tragic for the bees and their colonies, this information can help maintain the lives of bees as well as the health of the entire ecosystem.
Largely due to the pesticides used by commercial farmers, modern mass bee death began shortly following World War II. Ever since, pesticide use has become more and more common, especially given the industrialization and commercialization of farming in America. While beneficial for keeping insects from eating crops, pesticides are extremely harmful to life on Earth. The most common and effective pesticide, neonicotinoid, has a tragic effect on insects. When bees are exposed to neonicotinoid, they go into shock and forget where they are and how to get back to their hive and colony. Eventually, the bees become paralyzed and die.
Neonicotinoids also have harmful effects on other animals, human bodies and the environment. Studies have found sizeable portions of neonicotinoids in the environment and have examined the adverse effects of the pesticides on mammals, including humans (Environmental Health Perspectives, “Effects of Neonicotinoid Pesticide Exposure on Human Health: A Systematic Review,” 07.06.2016). Though little is known about the actual, long-term effects of neonicotinoids in our bodies, several fatalities following neonicotinoid exposure have been reported, along with numerous reports of developmental and neurological damage.
Despite the meager amount of research on pesticides’ adverse effects on human health, there is little regulation surrounding pesticide use. The mass death of bees indicates that pesticides are harmful to the environment, yet the scale of harm is not yet known. There is a great need for better pesticide regulation. In 2008, the United Nations Environment Programme declared that it would “implement a new initiative to better protect bees, bats, birds and others that are essential to global crop production and biodiversity,” yet pesticide regulation has remained largely unchanged (UN News, “Humans Must Change Behaviour to Save Bees, Vital for Food Production,” 03.10.2011).
You may be thinking: Well, I’m not a beekeeper or a commercial farmer or a legislator. What can I do to help bees? This is what I was thinking for all those months ago following the death of my bee friend. As I prepared its funeral and grave, I wondered: What can I do, as a student, to save the bees? The answer is certainly not simple, but there are actions that you can take to help protect bees and moreover the world as we know it!
Firstly, you can buy organic produce. Fruits and vegetables that were produced without pesticides are better for the environment, especially for our comrades the bees. In addition, they are better for your health! Though they are a bit more expensive, the extra dollar contributes to the welfare of bees and the farmers who produce the crops. Farmers working on small, certified organic farms are likely to be paid a better salary, have better working conditions and be less exposed to harmful chemicals.
You can also buy local and humane honey. The purchase of honey that comes from hives on small farms around you supports local businesses, where the bees are probably treated more nicely as well. Small-scale honey production mirrors wild honey production more accurately and thus is more healthy for the hive.
Also, have a home garden! Especially in urban areas, bees have relatively few plants to pollinate and consequently have little access to food. Your window-box garden will help feed local bees, increase the biodiversity of plants and will provide beautiful scenery for passers-by.
Most importantly, urge local lawmakers to create legislation aiding the pollinators that keep our world buzzing. The European Food Safety Authority found and demonstrated that farming without pesticides “is entirely feasible, economically profitable, and environmentally safe” (Greenpeace, “What We Can Do to Protect Bees and Other Pollinators,” 03.20.2013). If more farmers in the U.S. adopted non-pesticide farming techniques, production would not decrease, fruits and veggies would be healthier and the environment would ultimately benefit.