Bees Are Dying Off in Record Numbers: What Can We Do About It?
You might not like getting stung, but bees are pretty darn important—especially when it comes to our food.
Photo: Getty Images / Mint Images
We rely on bees for so many foods. They make honey, of course, but they also are responsible for pollinating about one third of our food supply. Foods like watermelon, berries, pumpkin and almonds all depend on bees. "Bees are so important for the growth of so many of the things we eat and especially almonds. With almonds in so many food products and almond flour and almond milk gaining in popularity, this is a topic people have to care about," says Maggie Michalczyk, MS, RD. Almond growers rely on bees for pollination, so the death of colonies means bad news for almond makers, too.
What the numbers say
In May of this year, California's almond growers (who supply about 80 percent of the world's almonds) realized that there was a potential bee shortage. They were expected to grow 2.5 billion pounds of almonds (up 10 percent from last year per the USDA), and they began to really worry.
In order to grow foods, like almonds, and to maintain the welfare of bees, we must do something to keep the colonies alive. According to the Bee Informed Partnership's latest survey, released this week, U.S. beekeepers lost about 40 percent of their honey bee colonies last winter, making it the greatest reported winter hive loss within the past 13 years. The total annual loss was a little above average.
"Right now there [are] three mites per hundred [bees]," said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, associate professor of entomology at the University of Maryland and president of the Bee Informed Partnership. "If this were September and you were seeing that number, you'd expect the hive to die" during the wintertime, he explained.
Why? Well, it's not just winter anymore but also farming practices and mites. The varroa mite, an external parasite that showed up in Florida in the 1980s, kills bee colonies. Herbicides and habitat loss ruin their homes. And lastly, pesticides, like dicamba and clothianidin, damage bees' health, compromising their immune systems and decreasing reproductive rates.
What can we do about it?
"I'm happy to hear that the almond board is undertaking new studies and research to find a solution for industry that helps save the bees too. I think other industries should also look at the resources they rely on to see if there are ways to make their industry more sustainable because other industries are not immune to a similar situation," says Michalczyk. She adds, "I do agree that it's time to look at the whole system, not just the fact that bees are dying to really start pinpointing solutions. As a dietitian, our food supply being affected does worry me, and something I think more people should be aware of."
It's not just an industry problem, though. At home, you can buy local honey to support local beekeepers. Plant pollinator-friendly plants in your garden (see the best ones to choose by visiting www.pollinator.org/guides. Learn more about efforts to save the bees and how you can help here.