Contributed by Maria Cannon

If you haven’t given much thought to bees since your last bee sting, it’s time to change that. Bees all over the world (even in Pennsylvania) are in danger, and their declining health comes with major implications for food security.

Bees play a big role in agriculture. They pollinate crops, increase yields, and give rise to a lucrative honey industry. Bees are so important, in fact, that millions are spent renting hives to pollinate farmers’ crops.

Over one third of the food we eat relies on pollination by bees, either directly or indirectly. Many fruits, nuts, and vegetables require pollination by bees and other insects in order to yield fruit, and without pollinators these crops could all but disappear from grocery store shelves.

All of this pollination adds up to a big price tag: Honey bees contribute $24 billion annually to U.S. agriculture, and 161.8 million pounds of raw honey was produced in 2016. But honey bees, and the industry, biodiversity, and nutritional variety they provide, is at risk.

What’s Affecting Bee Populations?

Honey bees have been in crisis since 2006, when beekeepers first reported the sudden disappearances of entire colonies. Beehives were found abandoned with no sign of life except a solitary queen, and scientists were mystified.

Today, this phenomenon is known as colony collapse disorder, but the causes behind it still aren’t understood. Beekeepers continue to lose up to 45 percent of their hives every winter while trying to manage threats from several directions.

The primary suspects behind colony collapse disorder are pesticides, especially those used in industrial agriculture, and destructive pests that invade hives and spread disease.

  • Neonicotinoids are a group of pesticides common in the agriculture industry. Neonicotinoids are used in the production of corn, one of our country’s most important crops, as well as wheat, soy, and cotton. They also alter bee behavior, limiting their ability to harvest nectar, and weaken bees’ immune systems, leaving them more vulnerable to pests and parasites.
  • The Varroa mite, is a parasite that attacks honey bees, weakening individual bees and infesting hives. Within one to two years, varroa mites can wipe out a colony of honey bees.
  • While Varroa mites get the most attention, they’re hardly the only pest putting bee populations in danger. Tracheal mites reduce honey production and eventually cause bees to die off. The small hive beetle is native to sub-Saharan Africa and has caused major colony loss throughout the bee population.
  • Habitat loss is another big threat to bee populations. As the amount of preserved natural environment decreases, so do bee habitats and food sources. When bees don’t have enough to forage, they can’t repopulate their hives.

How Can Consumers Make a Difference?

While the average consumer can’t do much about the pests threatening bee populations, they can influence other threats to pollinator health.

  • Avoid food grown using pesticides containing neonicotinoids. This means buying organic wheat, corn, and soy products, and opting for organic produce whenever possible. If you can, support one of Philadelphia’s many farmer's markets and farmers markets in nearby areas, and purchase your fruits, vegetables, and nursery plants from area farmers who forgo pesticides entirely. And be sure to ask before you buy. Just because something is labeled organic doesn’t mean it’s bee friendly: Even pesticides used in organic agriculture can harm bees.
  • Increase bees’ natural habitat by planting a garden, letting part of your yard go wild or creating your own bee-friendly habitat. When you stop mowing and sow native flowering plant species instead, you can attract a variety of pollinators to increase the beauty of your yard and the health of the environment. Instead of using fertilizers and pesticides, let nature take its course.
  • Learn how to live with bees. Fear of bees is mostly unfounded — except when directly threatened, most bee species are docile. In many solitary bees, the males don’t even have stingers. When you stay calm in the presence of bees and don’t get too close to hives, it’s easy to avoid getting stung. 

Bee populations may be at risk, but it’s not too late to make a difference. By spending your dollars conscientiously and making your home more bee-friendly, you can help preserve the nation’s food security.