Take three mouthfuls of food … and then thank honeybees for one of those mouthfuls.
Bee pollination brings in over $15 billion in increased crop value each year. About one mouthful in three in our diet benefits directly or indirectly from pollination by the honey bee. Pollination brings about more diversity in plants and produce.
However, the bees are dying, and there are various (and sometimes unknown) causes as to why. There were about 5 million honey bee colonies in the U.S. during the 1940s, but today there’s only about 2.5 million. New pesticides and mites are killing off the bees. Hives are being transported across the country, which can stress the bees. Sometimes beekeepers will open up a hive to find dead worker bees and no queens present, and it’s a mystery as to why. A 2014 study said that bees are dying off at lower levels than before, but the number is still at an uncomfortable level.
The problem with bees is that it’s tough to figure out what’s bothering them. It’s easy to mistake one problem for another, or to simply have no idea what the problem could be. There is a myriad of problems that can affect bees, and obviously they can’t tell their keepers what’s going on.
A North Carolina beekeeper reported that his 40 bee colonies was dying off for some unknown reason — he eventually discovered that the issue was pesticides in a nearby cucumber field, which meant that he had to move the hives and bring in healthy bees from other hives in order to save his colonies. He further noted that such observation is tough on beekeepers who have hundreds of hives. This is where a sensor could come in handy.
Pesticides can affect bees’ memory. Neonicotinoids are amongst the most widely used insecticides on the planet — they are used in over 120 countries and make up a quarter of the world’s total insecticides. They’re used to combat plant and soil insects, and as flea control for pets. As such, they’re likely not going away anytime soon. Bees exposed to neonicotinoids pesticides don’t remember how they’re supposed to function, and don’t remember how to get back to their hives. Research from the Universities of St Andrews and Dundee shows that low levels of neonicotinoids caused bumblebee colonies to have about a 55 percent reduction in live bee numbers, a 71 percent reduction in healthy brood cells, and a 57 percent reduction in the total bee mass of a nest.
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Another danger to bees is the Varroa mite, an external honey bee parasite that targets adult bees but prefer the drone brood. The mites arrived in the U.S. sometime in the 1980s. The effects of the mites are sometimes mistaken for winter mortality and queenlessness (replacement queens can be purchased, but it’ll cost you), and a colony of bees can be entirely wiped out if no mite extermination steps are taken. Therefore it’s important to find the cause quickly and address it quickly.
And then there’s Colony Collapse Disorder — a dead colony with a living queen and honey and immature bees, but no adult bees or dead bee bodies. There’s no proven scientific cause for this.
So how do we track the things that impact bees, so that we may figure out how to help them?
Multidisciplinary research organization CSIRO is leading the Global Initiative for Honey Bee Health — an international collaboration of researchers, beekeepers, farmers, industry, and technology companies aimed at better understanding what is harming bees and finding solutions to help secure crop pollination.
The Australian researchers have manually attached the small sensors to the backs of honeybees, to track environmental stress factors including disease, pesticides, air pollution, water contamination, diet, and extreme weather. All of these things affect the bees’ ability to pollinate. Bees are creatures of habit, so changes in their normal routine can indicate a problem. The micro-sensors, which are a quarter of a centimeter in length, were developed in conjunction with Intel. The devices record data when the insect passes a data logger — much like an E-Z Pass stuck to your car windshield. (An E-Bee Pass, perhaps?) That information is then sent remotely to a Cloud-based central location where researchers around the world can observe the insect’s behavior and how it interacts with its environment.
The Executive Branch is also getting involved. Earlier this year, the White House announced the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators, which “outlines a comprehensive approach to tackling and reducing the impact of multiple stressors on pollinator health, including pests and pathogens, reduced habitat, lack of nutritional resources, and exposure to pesticides.” The First Lady has planted gardens on the White House property to lure honey bees and other pollinators.
Dr. John P. Holdren, assistant to President Obama for science and technology, has stated that the president feels that the decline of the honeybee could hold enormous economic impact, and that this could be a “canary in the coal mine” in regards to climate change — “If honeybee colonies are collapsing for a reason we don’t understand, what is that telling us about our overall impacts and understanding of the ecosystems on which we depend?” he said.