Latest Buzz: Finding Solutions to the Bee Population Crisis

By Helen LinLast Updated Apr 16, 2021 4:31:47 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Alvesgaspar/Wikimedia Commons

Bees might not be a very popular insect, thanks to those painful stingers and their love of the fruits on our picnic plates, but they play a critical role in the health and well-being of our entire planet. As a key pollinating species, bees play an essential role in the reproduction of many plants. Without them, those plants would disappear, and without plants to produce oxygen, life on Earth would come to an end.

Additionally, some of those plants pollinated by bees produce many of the healthy foods we enjoy. Bees might annoy us, but we need them, and it’s essential to prevent their populations from declining any further. So, what is the current state of the bee crisis?

Why Are We Concerned About Bees?

Scientists have expressed concern about the rapidly declining bee populations during the last 10 to 15 years. Many people may wonder why bees are such a big deal. After all, they sometimes sting us, and a percentage of the population is actually allergic to the stings. Not to mention, they have ruined countless picnics throughout human history.

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Photo Courtesy: Graham Wise/Wikimedia Commons

Scientists are concerned about declining bee populations because they are an ecologically significant type of insect. What does that mean? Well, bees are pollinators that play an important role in our food and oxygen production across the planet. Protecting bee and other pollinator populations is about protecting our survival.

Why Are Pollinators So Important?

Pollinators are species that help with plant reproduction by removing pollen from male structures of the plant and transferring them to the female structures. This movement is a key part of the fertilization process for plants. As with humans, fertilization and reproduction are necessary to the continued survival of plant species.

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Photo Courtesy: Adamantios/Wikimedia Commons

The seeds produced by plants after fertilization will produce the next generation of that particular flower or plant species. Think of pollinators as the enablers of plant and flower reproduction. It’s estimated that 30% of world crops and 90% of wild plants need a pollinator like a bee in order to survive.

Bee Populations Are Declining Rapidly

Numerous statistics and trends point to a drastic decline in the bee population in recent years. In the United States, there were as many as 5.7 million honey bee colonies during the 1940s. By 2015, however, that number had dropped drastically to 2.74 million.

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Photo Courtesy: Muhammad Mahdi Karim/Wikimedia Commons

Backyard beekeepers reported an almost 40% loss in their colonies in the winter of 2019. At first, the reduction in bee population was attributed to a new phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder, but we are now able to point to some other causes believed to be behind the bee population decline.

What Is Colony Collapse Disorder?

Colony Collapse Disorder is the name given to the phenomenon that occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony leave. These worker bees abnormally leave the colony, despite the continued presence of a still-living queen, food and a fully functioning colony structure.

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Photo Courtesy: Healthnutlady/Wikimedia Commons

The term was coined in 2006 as a spike in reports of the phenomenon hit North America. What puzzled scientists about the phenomenon was the seemingly lack of reason for the worker bees to leave the colony. They were unable to identify the reason they left, and they weren’t sure what the impact would be.

Other Pollinator Species Are in Decline

Bees are not the only pollinators that scientists are concerned about right now. In fact, there are several thousands of species of pollinators, but many of those populations are also in serious decline. In addition to bees, butterfly species are being closely monitored as their populations have experienced significant decreases as well in recent years.

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Photo Courtesy: Derek Ramsey/Wikimedia Commons

Additional pollinator species include flies, beetles, mosquitoes and hummingbirds. Bees tend to be the pollinators most frequently talked about, however, due to the ecologically significant role they play as a common pollinator on our planet and the sharp decreases recorded in their populations.

What Is Causing Bee Population Declines?

A number of factors are behind the decline in global bee populations, but perhaps the most significant is industrial agriculture causing a loss of biodiversity that creates changes in the bees' environment and habitats. Humans continue to develop more areas, and that means more pesticides, herbicides and harmful chemicals.

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Photo Courtesy: Richard Bartz/Wikimedia Commons

The pesticides and herbicides are having a drastic impact on pollinators and the species of plants they help reproduce. Pesticides and herbicides aren’t the only issues affecting bee populations, however, as a switch to monoculture-based agriculture and the destruction of bee habitats also play a large role in the current predicament.

Bee-Killing Pesticides Are a Problem

Neonicotinoid pesticides are generally considered to be the biggest bee killers of all the pesticides. The problem with these types of pesticides is that they are widely used, and any regulations related to them are scarce. Cause and effect relationships in environmental issues are notoriously hard to determine.

Photo Courtesy: Zeynel Cebeci/Wikimedia Commons

Even the concept of an ecosystem only dates back to the 1960s. Being able to prove in court that a chemical is having a drastic impact on the environment is very difficult. Environmental groups have called for the banning of these chemicals, but they have encountered significant opposition. The chemicals work well, and farmers don’t want to stop using them to protect their crops.

Bee Declines Could Lead to Higher Global Food Prices

Scientists have raised the alarm that a decline in the global bee population also means a rise in global food prices, as the number of bees pollinating crops continues to decline. In particular, honey bees have been identified as one of the most important agricultural commodities for farming.

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Photo Courtesy: Stan Shebs/Wikimedia Commons

With some regions experiencing up to 90% reductions in bee populations, it will become much harder to grow food in those areas. As food production declines due to poor crop production, food prices will rise all over the world, creating a global impact.

Other Parts of the Economy Will Also Suffer

Beyond the immediate hit to grocery bills, the bigger problem with rising global food costs is that it has trickle-down effects on the rest of the economy. Food prices happen to have a very significant impact on the economy as a whole, because everyone needs food to live, and they need money to obtain it.

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Photo Courtesy: lyzadanger/Wikimedia Commons

If food prices go up, people have less money to spend in other parts of the economy. This means fewer people are investing their money, and people will have less to spend on entertainment and non-essential items. This ultimately makes it harder on every other aspect of the economy.

Climate Change Is Impacting Bee Populations

While pesticides have been proven to play a large role, the bee population decline is still a multifaceted problem that stems from different parts of human development. As our society grows and expands, it reduces biodiversity and changes the planet in a variety of ways.

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Photo Courtesy: Qypchak/Wikimedia Commons

We are also changing our planet through our use of fossil fuels and by emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. According to researchers, as average temperatures rise globally, it will change the bees' natural range. In a nutshell, as our environment and climate change, the bees aren’t able to adapt as quickly as the changes are occurring.

Loss of Habitat Is Impacting Bee Populations

In addition to climate change and agricultural pesticides, another factor impacting bee populations is a decline in habitats. Every time we pave over a natural area to put up a building, it reduces pollinator habitat.

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Photo Courtesy: Jodelet/Lépinay/Wikimedia Commons

Bees require a diverse environment where they can thrive, and those are not the type of environments humans create when we develop natural land to build strip malls. The more land we develop, the less land the bees have access to for building colonies and reproducing. It is another example of a direct correlation between human development and the global bee population decline.

Global Efforts to Help Are Just Getting Started

Fortunately for the bees and the people who rely on their pollinating, some people are making an effort globally to help improve this situation. In the summer of 2018, the European Union banned the use of several neonicotinoid pesticides outdoors but didn’t ban their use inside greenhouses. It’s still a start.

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Photo Courtesy: Jodelet/Lépinay/Wikimedia Commons

Of course, many companies began exploiting a loophole in the ban that allowed for emergency authorization to use the chemicals, as farmers were concerned that the ban would impact the yield and quality of their crops. Other types of chemicals are still allowed, however, and farmers may use them without limit.

Smart-World Technology Can Be Used to Monitor Bee Activity and Behavior

Researchers have also started developing technologically-focused solutions as well. In particular, the World Bee Project and Oracle have collaborated on a new technique to monitor bee populations using artificial intelligence and data visualization. The aim is to give researchers new insights into how bees interact with their environments.

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Photo Courtesy: USDA ARS/Wikimedia Commons

The project is titled the World Bee Project Hive Network, and it will take measurements of temperature, humidity, honey yield and more to determine patterns and predict bee behavior. By better monitoring bee behavior, we can learn more about them and hopefully develop solutions to halt their declining populations.

Amsterdam Is Working to Help Its Bees

As this is an issue that individual citizens can focus on as well, cities and towns around the world are developing local policies intended to have a positive impact on the bee population. A perfect example of a city doing all they can to help bees is the Dutch capital of Amsterdam.

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Photo Courtesy: Nikolai Karaneschev/Wikimedia Commons

Wild bees and honey bees in Amsterdam have been increasing in numbers recently and are now at a level 45% higher than they were in 2000. This has been attributed to Amsterdam’s ban on bee-killing pesticides on public land, which allowed overgrowth to form, grass to remain uncut and bee habitats to thrive.

Bees Are Delivering Bee-Friendly Pesticides

A company named Bee Vector Technology based out of Canada has developed a pesticide named Vectorite that has been deemed safe by the EPA and other organizations determined to protect bees. That all sounds good, but then the company announced how they plan to deliver this bee-friendly pesticide to crops: The bees will deliver it themselves.

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Photo Courtesy: Lite-Trac/Wikimedia Commons

Apparently, the bees walk through a tray dispenser of inoculating powder and then distribute the pesticide during their normal pollinating activities. The powder clings to the bee's fur, and as they travel, spores are dropped onto the plants. Unbelievable but true!

Regenerative Agricultural Practices Can Restore Bee Populations

Environmentalists are recommending that farmers switch to a form of agriculture they are calling regenerative agriculture. This type of farming is different from monoculture farming, in which large fields of land are used to grow a single crop. Monoculture farming reduces biodiversity and prevents agricultural land from being a good habitat for pollinators.

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Photo Courtesy: Shuvaev/Wikimedia Commons

Farmers who switch to growing a variety of crops on the same land can also expect to experience greater long-term viability of their land, as it increases the biological and chemical makeup of the soil. Switching to regenerative agriculture from monoculture agriculture would have a great impact on bee populations.

The World Bee Project Is Ready to Make Changes

Numerous environmental organizations have noticed the problem of declining bee populations. We rely on bees, and we certainly rely on the food they help produce. Many environmental and conservation organizations decided to get involved, and entirely new organizations have even been created just to focus on this issue.

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Photo Courtesy: Alvesgaspar/Wikimedia Commons

One of those organizations is the World Bee Project, which is the first private organization to launch a global monitoring initiative for bees. The organization also focuses on helping improve food security and nutrition by creating a globally coordinated monitoring program for bees and other key pollinators.

How Can You Help Bee Populations?

While global efforts and governmental efforts are underway to address this problem, it’s an issue that every individual on the planet can work to improve. One easy way to make a difference is to stop using pesticides at home that could be harmful to bees.

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Photo Courtesy: Muhammad Mahdi Karim/Wikimedia Commons

Avoiding bee-killing pesticides in your garden and outdoor areas is easy if you simply pay attention to the ingredients in the products you buy at the store. Don't use any products with non-organic herbicides, pesticides or insecticides in them. By not supporting industries that use bee-killing pesticides, you kill fewer bees!

Purchase Local Organic Honey

Bees are known for making honey, and you can also help fight global declining bee populations by consuming this delicious product. The key is to purchase locally produced organic honey instead of purchasing jarred honey from grocery stores.

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Photo Courtesy: Merdal/Wikimedia Commons

Why does it matter? Well, honey produced locally supports your local bee farmers, who are then better able to take good care of their bee colonies. The farmers tend to sell their wares at local farmers’ markets, which also gives you the chance to speak with them in person about their best practices and what they’re doing to help bee populations.

Plant a Bee-Friendly Garden

In addition to avoiding pesticide use and purchasing local honey, another way you can have a positive impact on declining global bee populations as a concerned citizen is by planting a bee-friendly garden on your property. This type of garden requires a bit of work and planning, however.

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Photo Courtesy: Introvert/Wikimedia Commons

A bee-friendly garden involves several pollinator-friendly plants as well as large patches of open soil with twigs and branches on the ground as well as leaves laying around on top of the soil. This type of diverse garden provides an appealing habitat for bees and other pollinators.

Choose the Best Plants for Bees

Numerous plants and flowers can be grown in your garden to have a positive impact on bee populations. These include crocuses, dandelions, bee balm, lavender, chives, sunflowers, zinnias, Russian sage, thyme and oregano. You can also grow some bee-popular low-growing flowers, such as clover patches.

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Photo Courtesy: Potentillarecta/Wikimedia Commons

The best types of plants for your garden may depend on the climate where you live. If you plan on starting your own bee-friendly garden, the first thing you might want to do is look for a local environmental group that can provide some guidance.

Avoid Growing a Full Lawn

One method to help support the bee population actually requires very little effort at all. By simply not planting a grass lawn on your property, you help create more bee-friendly habitat. It may sound strange, but freshly cut grass lawns don’t provide good habitats for bees and other pollinators.

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Photo Courtesy: Berglund/Wikimedia Commons

Instead of maintaining a big, open lawn, grow some bushes and plant some flower beds. Don't cut down trees and extend your garden to cover a broader space. If you really want to help protect the bee population, keeping a well-cut, freshly mowed lawn is not what you want to do.

Leave Weeds in Your Garden

Your neighbors may be appalled, but one really simple way you can help your garden be a better home for bees and other pollinators is to not remove all the weeds. There will be a few gardening aficionados out there who will be horrified at the visual look of a garden with weeds, but if your goal is to provide a habitat for pollinators, then leave those weeds in there — at least some of them.

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Photo Courtesy: SaltySemanticSchmuck/Wikimedia Commons

Don't listen to those garden snobs who say you should remove all weeds from your garden. Allowing weeds to continue growing will help stop the destruction of pollinator habitat in your area.

Install a Water Basin on Your Balcony or Garden

Now, based on the above advice, you have a lovely, large garden on your property, and you haven’t removed all the weeds so the biodiversity can really thrive. There's one other thing you still need to do to make your garden an ideal pollinator habitat, however.

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Photo Courtesy: Jon Sullivan/Wikimedia Commons

Installing a water basin in your garden or even on a balcony provides a nice little rest stop for pollinators, including bees. This is also recommended if you would like to help butterflies, another important pollinator, as they need to make numerous stops for water along their migration routes.

Grow Flower-Producing Crops

You can also help support and improve the bee population by growing vegetables that produce flowers, such as squash and pumpkins, in your garden. While bees and other pollinators may not interact directly with the squash or the pumpkin, they will help the flowers those crops create reproduce and make seeds.

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Photo Courtesy: Louise Docker/Wikimedia Commons

Of course, you shouldn’t need any more motivation to grow either squash or pumpkins in your garden. They are perfect autumn crops that can be turned into delicious dishes and pies. It’s a bonus win for both you and the bees!

Educate Yourself on Bees

One thing every concerned citizen should do regarding the declining bee population is learn more about bees and the role they play in our ecosystem. We tend to view bees as pests, as buzzy little creatures that can sting us and cause other problems. We don't focus much on the idea that bees are a necessary species on our planet.

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Photo Courtesy: Björn Appel/Wikimedia Commons

If it wasn't for pollinators such as bees, we wouldn't have a diverse range of produce, crops and plants capable of supporting life on this planet. With greater knowledge comes better strategies and agricultural practices.

Support Further Research on Bees

Just educating yourself about bee populations is good, but if you want to go even further in promoting positive change, the best thing you can do is support scientific research on this issue. The World Bee Project and numerous environmental organizations put a lot of funding into research to help us better understand bee behavior and adjust our agricultural practices accordingly.

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Photo Courtesy: Caballero1967/Wikimedia Commons

Additionally, research will also help us unlock the secrets of just how important pollinators such as bees are to our personal health, planetary health and food security. With greater knowledge comes better practices.

Support Government Actions to Save Bees

Much of what is being done to help save the bee populations is being done by governments around the world. Because a declining bee population has the potential to raise food prices and cause widespread economic fallout, political leaders are highly motivated to take action on this issue.

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Photo Courtesy: joost j. bakker/Wikimedia Commons

If you would like to help stop declining bee populations, then one thing you can do is support politicians that plan on taking action on this issue. This would include politicians who plan on conserving natural areas, protecting wildlife and placing restrictions on harmful chemicals used for agricultural practices.

Record Your Bumblebee Sightings

Collecting data on bee populations is incredibly difficult. Bees are fast-moving, small insects that are not prone to responding to census questions. One thing you can do to help expand the reach of data and knowledge in this area is to record your own bumblebee sightings and register them with an organization called Bumblebee Watch.

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Photo Courtesy: Tony Wills/Wikimedia Commons

This organization tracks North America's bumblebees and is looking for people to upload photos of them when they encounter them. This will help researchers determine the locations and abundance of bees across the continent. Think of it as being like birding — but be careful to not get stung!

Become a Beekeeper

One major way that anyone can play a positive role in helping protect bee populations is to become a beekeeper yourself. You could support local bee farmers by purchasing local organic honey, or you could be that beekeeper yourself!

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Photo Courtesy: Migco/Wikimedia Commons

What better way to help bee populations thrive than by providing what is necessary for a colony to survive? Not only that, but you get to wear the cool beekeeper suit too! If you're ever in a rush, just wear it and run into a crowded area. You'd be surprised how fast people will get out of your way.