- Last year, 40% of US honeybee colonies died or disappeared — the most severe bee decline ever recorded during the winter season.
- Bee populations worldwide have been shrinking for years. Earth is at risk of losing all its insects in 100 years.
- Without bees, crops worldwide would suffer, making nuts, fruits, and vegetable more expensive and difficult to produce.
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Bees are getting so scarce and so valuable that people are stealing hives from almond farms in California and selling them at steep prices.
That’s because the populations of both domestic honeybees and wild bees have been in decline for the last few decades. Extinction rates for pollinators have jumped to 100 to 1,000 times the normal rates, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). About 40% of invertebrate pollinators, especially bees and butterflies, are facing extinction worldwide.
Today, the US has only 2.5 million honeybee colonies, less than half of the bee settlements it boasted in the 1940s.
Bees perform a crucial role in fruit, vegetable, and nut production — without the pollination work they do, humans would have to say goodbye to (or pay very steep prices for) some of our most nutritious foods, including berries, apples, almonds, cucumbers, peppers, and seeds.
This is what the world would look like without bees.
An annual survey of 4,700 beekeepers found that since 2010, they’ve lost an average of 37.8% of US bee colonies each year. Last year was worse.
The survey is conducted by researchers at the University of Maryland, and the beekeepers who participate manage (in total) 320,000 of the 2.69 million honey bee hives in the country.
The rates of bee colony collapse slowed in 2014, but losses recently picked up again.
Last year, the US lost 40.7% of its honeybee colonies.
Most of those colonies died or disappeared during the winter — the highest winter loss since the survey began 13 years ago.
"These results are very concerning, as high winter losses hit an industry already suffering from a decade of high winter losses," Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a University of Maryland scientist, said in a press release.
Scientists still haven’t figured out exactly what’s killing the bees, but potential causes fall into four categories: pathogens, pests, stress, and pesticides.
When the majority of a colony’s worker bees disappear and leave behind the queen, baby bees, and lots of food, that’s called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The mysterious phenomenon has caused enormous bee losses since at least 2006.
Researchers have identified a barrage of threats to bee health that could be responsible.
One factor is that bees are getting sick. New viruses and a new fungal gut parasite are killing bees worldwide. American foulbrood, the primary bacterial disease affecting US honeybees, has developed resistance to the antibiotic that beekeepers once used to prevent it.
Hives can also be invaded by parasitic mites. During the winters of 1995 through 2001 in particular, mites decimated bees across the northern US, wiping out entire beekeeping operations. Today many mites are pesticide-resistant.
Human activities can also stress bee colonies to the point of collapse. Bees, like humans, can’t lead healthy lives consuming just one type of food, so as more farms grow miles and miles of a single crop, bees have to fly too far to get the nutrition they need.
Climate change and urban development further decimate bees’ habitats.
Pesticides sprayed on crops also play a role. Some are poisonous to bees and have been directly linked to their population collapse, so the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned 12 pesticides that are harmful to bees this year.
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- Rising emissions could drain foods like rice and wheat of their nutrients, causing a slow-moving global food crisis