Pollinators: Contributions & Risks

Greetings, Readers! The following is an excerpt from my master’s thesis on the contributions bees make to our daily lives — in both nuanced and direct ways. This section also discusses the decline of the pollinator population.

“The bees are the life guarantors of nature itself, so we have to try to take care of them. By taking care of them, we take care of ourselves,” Gunther Hauk – Holistic Bee Farmer.


In 2006, the western honeybee (Apis mellifera) began a markedly rapid decline. [1] While evidence of the cause(s) of this epidemic remains inconclusive, the consequences of a decline continuing at this rate could prove to be irreparable. Contributions from bees and other pollinators include agricultural variety (along with the nutritional value this provides) and economic stability. It is estimated that approximately one in three mouthfuls of food are attributed to bees and other pollinators.[2] Economically, pollinators are responsible for over $150 billion globally in agriculture, with over 70% of food sources in the United States dependent on pollinators.[3] Honeybees and other pollinators are also a crucial element in retaining ecosystemic balances, like pollination, “Beyond agriculture, pollinators are keystone species in most terrestrial ecosystems: they pollinate the seeds and fruits that feed everything from songbirds to grizzly bears. Thus, conservation of pollinating insects is critically important to preserving both wider biodiversity and agriculture.”[4]

The decrease of the bee population in the United States is now quantifiable to a more precise degree, and the figures are enormous. Since 1947 we have lost over half of our domestic/commercial bee population, from 6 million in 1947 to 2.5 million today.[5] According to a recent study, the agricultural community is already drastically feeling the effects. From 2005-2010, the demand for bees for pollination grew 4.9 times faster than the population of bees needed for pollination throughout Europe and the U.S.[6] Since 1961, the land in the U.S. devoted to growing crops that depend on pollinators has increased by 300%, while the population of bees has dropped by about 50%. The effects thus far have been mitigated by wild bees and other pollinators working over time. However, it is unrealistic to rely on this as a method for sustainability in the long run. Further, it is impossible to know how long wild pollinators’ overtime is even a feasible option, as that type of data is just simply not available to collect. Below is a map to demonstrate the population of pollinators and the effects on specific countries.[7]


Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) – What Is It?

Researchers, farmers, and others interested in the bee decline have labeled the epidemic Colony Collapse Disorder to describe the drastic population decline in honeybees. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is a case that has been increasingly affecting honeybees, particularly the western honeybee. CCD is characterized by the absence of the majority of worker bees in a hive, while a healthy queen, immature bees, nurse bees, and food supplies are maintained in the hive. This means that lack of food, worker bees, etc. are not the cause of the hive’s abandonment.

In an attempt to remove the ambiguity surrounding CCD, U.S. bee scientists defined some of the symptoms often associated with the phenomenon. In collapsed (dead) colonies, CCD may produce the following symptoms: 1. the complete absence of adult bees in colonies with few or no dead bees in / around colonies; 2. the presence of capped brood; and 3. the presence of food stores that are not robbed by other bees or typical colony pests. CCD symptoms often associated with collapsing (weakening) colonies may include: 1. an insufficient number of bees to maintain the amount of brood in the colony; 2. the workforce is composed largely of younger adult bees; 3. the queen is present; and 4. the cluster of bees is reluctant to consume food provided to them by the beekeeper. [8]

However, the ‘missing’ bees are also nowhere to be found near the hive. In fact, cases of CCD do not result in a large finding of a hive’s bees… they are essentially lost.

The cause of CCD remains inconclusive, though there are theories that waft through the agricultural and entomological communities.[9] There are various factors that are thought to have an impact on bees’ population, including mites, lack of nutrition, disappearing habitat, and use of systemic pesticides like neonicotinoids.[10]

CCD started to become alarmingly noticeable in 2006, and since then bee colonies have been collapsing at even more rapid rates. This epidemic threatens bees and humans alike – from well-being and nutrition, to agricultural variation and economic stability. The USDA released a report from their study on bee population and the effects of CCD, and had some dire warnings,

If losses continue at the 33 percent level, it could threaten the economic viability of the bee pollination industry. Honeybees would not disappear entirely, but the cost of honeybee pollination services would rise, and those increased costs would ultimately be passed on to consumers through higher food costs. Now is the time for research into the cause and treatment of CCD before CCD becomes an agricultural crisis.[11]

The Federation of American Scientists, an independent group of academics and researchers, provides a list of symptoms of CCD:

  • Rapid loss of adult worker bees
  • Few or no dead bees found in the hive
  • Presence of immature bees (brood)
  • Small cluster of bees with live queen present
  • Pollen and honey stores in hive

Among the key symptoms of CCD in collapsed colonies is that the adult population is suddenly gone without any accumulation of dead bees. The bees are not returning to the hive but are leaving behind their brood (young bees), their queen, and maybe a small cluster of adults. What is uncharacteristic about this situation is that the honeybee is a very social insect and colony-oriented, with a complex and organized nesting colony.

A telltale sign of CCD is that bees simply do not return to an often otherwise healthy hive.

Failing to return to the hive is considered highly unusual. An absence of a large number of dead bees makes an analysis of the causes of CCD difficult. Also, there is little evidence that the hive may have been attacked. In actively collapsing colonies, an insufficient number of adult bees remain to care for the brood. The remaining workforce seems to be made up of young adult bees. The queen is present, appears healthy, and is usually still laying eggs, but the remaining cluster is reluctant to consume feed provided by the beekeeper, and foraging is greatly reduced.[12]

From 2006 to 2013, CCD was responsible for the collapse of some ten million beehives.[13] Normal rates of loss for a beehive are around 10-30% annually. But since 2006, beekeepers have noticed decreases up to 90%.[14] 2015 was a particularly disastrous year, with losses averaging 42% (the highest annual loss average).[15] CCD has seriously affected at least 35 states since 2006.[16]These statistics portray drastic effects on the population of pollinators locally and globally.

The National Resources Council of the National Academies is another independent scholarly group that evaluates various issues in the country, including CCD. They released a several hundred-page manuscript on the status of honeybees in North America, and they begin with highlighting the importance of honeybees,

About three-quarters of the more than 240,000 species of the world’s flowering plants rely on pollinators—insects, birds, bats, and other animals—to various degrees to carry pollen from the male to the female parts of flowers for reproduction. Pollinators are vital to agriculture because most fruit, vegetable, seed crops and other crops that provide fiber, drugs, and fuel are pollinated by animals. Bee-pollinated forage and hay crops, such as alfalfa and clover, also are used to feed the animals that supply meat and dairy products. Animal-pollinated crops generally provide relatively higher income to growers than do crops pollinated in other ways.

Over and above its direct economic value to humans, pollination by animals provides essential maintenance of the structure and function of a wide range of natural communities in North America, and it enhances aesthetic, recreational, and cultural aspects of human activity. In view of that economic and ecological importance, this report assesses the status of pollinators in North America, identifies species for which there is evidence of decline, analyzes the putative causes of those declines, and discusses their potential consequences.[17]

These reports, combined with the enormous contributions bees and other pollinators make to ecosystemic longevity, economic stability, and agricultural variation make it imperative that their rapid decline be explored further, and the causes evaluated more precisely.

One such cause of CCD and the decline of pollinators’ population that has been increasingly suggested in the past decade are neonicotinoids (neonics), a systemic pesticide used in agricultural practices. In the next section, I will explore neonics in more detail.

Sources Cited
[1] Bailes, Emily J., Jeff Ollerton, Jonathan G. Pattrick, and Beverly J. Glover. "How Can an   Understanding of Plant-Pollinator Interactions Contribute to Global Food Security." Current Opinion in Plant Biology 26 (August 2015): 72-79. http://www.sciencedirect.com.proxy.lib.pdx.edu/science/article/pii/S1369526615000849.
[2] Kaplan, Kim. "Honey Bee Health and Colony Collapse Disorder." USDA. Accessed September 15, 2015. http://www.ars.usda.gov/News/docs.htm?docid=15572#public.
[3] Miller, G. Tyler, and Scott Spoolman. Sustaining the Earth. 11th ed. N.p.: Cengage Learning, 2013. 97.
[4] Hopwood, Jennifer et. al. "Are Neonicotinoids Killing Bees?." Xerces Society. Accessed November 17, 2015. http://ento.psu.edu/publications/are-neonicotinoids-killing-bees.
[5] USDA 2012 Report on the National Stakeholders Conference on Honey Bee Health. October 15-17,2012.
[7] Breez, Tom D. et. al. "Agricultural Policies Exacerbate Honeybee Pollination Service Supply-Demand Mismatches Across Europe." PLOS One (January 8, 2014). http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0082996#references.
[8] James D. Ellis, Jay D. Evans & Jeff Pettis (2010) Colony losses, managed colony population decline, and Colony Collapse Disorder in the United States, Journal of Apicultural Research, 49:1, 134-136
[9] vanEngelsdorp, Dennis et. al. "Colony Collapse Disorder: A Descriptive Study." PLOS One (August 2009). Accessed October 7, 2015. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0006481.
[10] Lecture, The Loss of Ecosystem Services as a Result of Colony Collapse Disorder. April 30, 2105. http://digitalcommons.colby.edu/clas/2015/program/26/
[11] Kaplan, Kim. "Honey Bee Health and Colony Collapse Disorder." USDA. Accessed September 15, 2015.http://www.ars.usda.gov/News/docs.htm?docid=15572#public.
[12] Johnson, Renee. "Honey Bee Colony Collapse Disorder." Federation of American Scientists. (January 7 2010) 8. https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/RL33938.pdf.
[13] Walsh, Bryan. "Beepocalypse Redux: Honeybees Are Still Dying — and We Still Don’t Know Why." Time Magazine, May 7, 2013 http://science.time.com/2013/05/07/beepocalypse-redux-honey-bees-are-still-dying-and-we-still-dont-know-why/.
[14] Walsh, Bryan. "Beepocalypse Redux: Honeybees Are Still Dying — and We Still Don’t Know Why." Time Magazine, May 7, 2013 http://science.time.com/2013/05/07/beepocalypse-redux-honey-bees-are-still-dying-and-we-still-dont-know-why/.
[15] Wines, Michael. "Mystery Malady Kills More Bees, Heightening Worry on Farms." New York Times, March 28, 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/29/science/earth/soaring-bee-deaths-in-2012-sound-alarm-on-malady.html?hp&utm_source=buffer&buffer_share=7418a&_r=1.
[16] National Research Council, “Status of Pollinators in North America,” The National Academies Press, Washington, D.C., 2007, www.nap.edu/catalog/11761/status-of- pollinators-in-north-america; Holden, C., “Report warns of looming pollination crisis in North America,” Science, 314, pp. 397, October 20, 2006, www.sciencemag.org/ content/314/5798/397.
[17] "Summary." National Research Council. Status of Pollinators in North America. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2007.

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