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Keystone Species Dying Off—Why Losing Beehives and Honey May Be More Concerning Than You'd Think

May 14, 2015 12:47 PM EDT

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Honeybees are dying en masse all over the globe, and it's not just lovers of honey that should be concerned. These mass deaths will change our dinner plates forever, not to mention raise the cost of eating generally. In a world where food security and hunger are crucially important, this is bad news for everyone.

The growing number of honeybee losses from the report is in step with the overall trend of bee colony die offs, and beekeepers say this is likely to affect our food supply dramatically. Staple food crops such as tomatoes, onions, berries, and apples are likely to be lost without bees to pollinate them. This is because most commercial beekeepers earn their living by renting out their colonies, not from actual bee products like honey. This is a labor-intensive process which includes transporting masses of bees to farms.

As bees die off, fewer bees will need to travel farther to pollinate, and the resulting rising cost will be most noticeable at the grocery store. This is just one of the reasons that honeybees are considered a keystone species, one whose absence from their ecosystem is keenly felt due to the reliance on the keystone species by numerous other species.

"If beekeepers are going to meet the growing demand for pollination services, researchers need to find better answers to the host of stresses that lead to both winter and summer colony losses," said Jeff Pettis, co-author of the survey.

Although honeybees dying off is not a trend new to this year, experts are alarmed. The Bee Informed Partnership (BIP), a consortium of research laboratories and universities, released its annual report this week. According to this report, 2014 saw the second-highest rates of loss recorded by beekeepers since annual surveys began in 2010. Approximately 5,000 beekeepers lost 42.1 percent of their colonies during the 12-month reporting cycle. In 2013 and 2014 that loss rate was 34.2 percent, making this a significant increase.

Beekeepers cite an annual wintertime loss of up to 18.9 percent as remaining in the "acceptable" range. This is because within this death rate it is economically sound to keep and rent bees for pollination. There has in fact been a slight drop in winter death rates, but this is not the good news it seems to be.

Even more notable for the authors was the sharp spike in honeybee deaths during the summer. This death rate exceeded the rate of winter deaths for the first time, and these spiking summer losses more than match any winter gains. Large-scale commercial beekeepers were hit especially hard, which will affect farmers who rely on commercial hives for pollination.

"We expect the colonies to die during the winter, because that's a stressful season," University of Maryland assistant professor of entomology Dennis van Engelsdorp says, the survey director for the bee partnership. "What's totally shocking to me is that the losses in summer, which should be paradise for bees, exceeded the winter losses."

"The winter loss numbers are more hopeful especially combined with the fact that we have not seen much sign of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) for several years, but such high colony losses in the summer and year-round remain very troubling," Pettis says.

Bees are not in danger of becoming extinct-at least not right now-but this doesn't mean that their situation is not dire. The "services" that honeybees provide in the agriculture industry are worth between $10 billion and $15 billion annually.

Just as pressing as the honeybee death rate is the question that accompanies it: why? Why are honeybees dying more and more?

No one knows the answer with certainty, but there are likely theories. In years before what is now called colony collapse disorder (CCD) became widespread, beekeepers typically lost about 10 percent of their bees over the course of a year. However, about ten years ago the death rates began to swell. Colonies were abandoned by adult bees, left deserted but for brood chambers full of unhatched young and the queen, not to mention ample untouched food supplies. This was deemed CCD as it swept through hives around the world. And although the mass dying off has slowed slightly in recent years, the overall health numbers and death rates of colonies all over the globe remain poor.

Dr. van Engelsdorp cites inadequate nutrition as a possible factor in the rising death toll. Once home to a huge variety of wildflowers, millions of acres of land have now been plowed and planted as a response to rising crop prices. Since 2007, the conservation land retained through an Agriculture Department program has shrunk to half its original size-and it is still shrinking. The scientific community through experts like Dr. vanEngelsdrop cites two other issues which are causing CCD: pesticides and the varroa mite, a deadly parasite.

Neonicotinoids are the class of pesticide almost always used on major US crops. Many experts have turned their attention to these neonicotinoids in recent years. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recently indicated that it will probably not approve any new uses of these chemicals until their impact on pollinators, including the honeybee, can be fully understood. The European Commission, which governs the EU, cited risks to honeybees when it banned the use of three types of this pesticide on flowering plants.

The bottom line? According to Van Engelsdorp and other experts, the situation is "unheard of," and these deaths are sounding a serious warning about the state of agriculture all over the world.

"What we're seeing with this bee problem is just a loud signal that there's some bad things happening with our agro-ecosystems," co-author Keith Delaplane says. "We just happen to notice it with the honeybee because they are so easy to count."

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