Humans have an odd fascination with bees in a way that we share with few other insects. We’re drawn, in turns, to both love them and fear them. Who hasn’t, for instance, seen a picture of an adorable little bumblebee… and simulataneously recoiled in fear from the sight of an active swarm of honeybees?
We like bees (bee)cause, in many ways, they reflect all the best qualities about our selves – they’re hardworking, industrious, unafraid to work together in the name of the common good. And, just like humans, they’ll band together in the defense of their homes, willingly laying down their lives to defend the hive against intruders. Their soft, fluffy appearance helps matters too – there’s a reason why we find bees cute, but not wasps.
It’s probably a good thing that they’re as busy as, well, bees – bees alone constitute a gigantic part of modern agriculture, tirelessly pollinating flowers and allowing for the propagation of fruits, vegetables, and other crops. And, of coure, who doesn’t love a dollop of honey on their toast every now and then?
So what’s the buzz these days? If you’ve been following the world of entomology these last few years, things haven’t been looking so good for our favourite yellow-and-black striped insects. In recent years, beehives across the Untied States and beyond have slowly fallen victim to a mysterious new malady that beekeeprs quickly dubbed “colony collapse disorder.”
In a healthy, functioning beehive, the queen bee responsible for laying eggs and providing population turnover is supported by a vast cadre of workers that gather nectar, take care of babies, and generally do all the things that keep a beehive healthy and functioning. In colony collapse disorder, the worker bees swiftly die off faster than they can be replaced. In some instance, worker bees will simply up and leave, abandoning a malnourished queen and a handful of survivors to struggle along until they, too, perish.
Colony collapse disorder has existed for decades, if not centuries; it’s perfectly natural for bee colonies to occasionally die off due to early frosts, disease outbreaks, or a poor flower harvest. But since 2006, bee deaths in the United States and europe have skyrocketed. What was once whimsically known as “autumn collapse” or “May disease” has quickly gained a more serious moniker as scientists began to investigate.
Between 2007 and 2013, more than ten million beehives across the world have died. Bad news for fans of honey, yes – but also bad news for fans of apples, peaches, plums, cherries, watermelons…
The most frightening thing about CCD is that we’re still not really sure what it’s doing in bee colonies. Is it a rapidly spreading strain of mite that infiltrates bee colonies to suck them dry? It could be. Could human-induced climate change alter weather patterns and wreck wildflowers? Possible. What about the vast amounts of pesticides and chemicals we dump into farmlands? Also a suspect. Farmers and beekeepers are fighting a war on multiple fronts against an enemy they don’t really understand.
Recently, there’s been a ray of light in the troubled world of insect agriculture. In the United States, the number of commercial honeybee hives has actually risen by a sizeable amount to 2.89 million, suffering only 84,430 deaths to CCD. That’s a noticeable downtick in the number of CCD deaths, more than a quarter of the usual tally.
The reasons behind this ray of light aren’t clearly understood – it could be that bees are starting to evolve a natural defense against whatever is bumping them off – but scientists say it’s more likely that what we’re witnessing is the natural fruit of previous attempts to replenish losses by splitting strong colonies into new hives. The US EPA is still continuing inquiries into different kinds of pesticides and their safe use in order to keep the bees buzzing, and our fruits juicy, for generations to come.