The Fall of The Honey Bee, or the Fall of Humanity?

2007’s Bee movie holds a special place in my heart. It features slapstick comedy, endless bee puns and a romance between a woman and a bee. All things considered, it has no right to be taken seriously by anyone. Yet the way I see it, Bee Movie conveys an important conservation message. It warns us about the dangers of taking bees for granted. The film focuses on Barry, a little honey bee trying to make a difference in the Big Apple. Barry and his Pollen Jocks thanklessly pollinate our flora, beautify our world, and stabilize our ecosystems. Honey bees help produce seeds, nuts and fruits through pollination, making them integral to maintaining stable ecological relationships. And so, as the Bee Movie alludes to, a world without honey bees is a bleak prospect for many. As Barry looks over a desolate central park (a result of the loss of honey bee pollination) the absence of beauty is not the only thing to be forlorn about. The countless species of birds, mammals, and insects who rely on the seeds and fruits of the withering fauna will no longer be able to sustain their population.  In the midst of a global biodiversity crisis, the loss of honey bees seems to be the tipping point of an apocalyptic future.

Aside from making us wonder if a grown woman could actually leave her boyfriend for a bee, Bee Movie raises valid questions about the future of biodiversity. What is causing this rapid population decline? Does the loss of honey bees suggest a barren wasteland in our future? If we fail to halt the decline of honey bees, we very well may be in trouble. The function of the honey bee is enormous, and while other pollinators exist, removing the honey bee guarantees wide-ranging negative effects. However, public uncertainty still slows down action. Many do not understand the ambiguity of “Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD), so we must highlight the main drivers colony decline. From there, we can assert what the loss of Bees means not only for humans, but also for fauna, flora and ecosystems as a whole. Finally, more hypothesis driven studies must be conducted in order to directly correlate CCD with another factor.

2007, the year of Bee Movie’s release, saw a dramatic colony collapse event, with keepers reporting losses of 30-90% of their hives (“Colony Collapse Disorder”). CCD, characterized by the “disappearance” of worker bees,was thought to be some kind of biological disorder (“Colony Collapse Disorder”). However studies have shown it is more of an accumulation of various environmental factors. According to a 2009 descriptive study, the presence of Varroa mites and other parasites plays a critical role in colony collapse. Yet this study, which tested 61 factors, could not directly correlate a single variable with the presence of CCD (vanEngelsdorp, et al 2009). All we know is that Varroa mites, climate change, pesticides and stress put colonies at risk for collapse. A study published in 2016 showed that colony collapse could possibly be explained through an allee effect. The study displayed a critical minimum of adult bees was required in order for the hive to survive. If environmental factors increased mortality of adult bees, young bees would take up roles they were not ready for. Eventually, the entire social dynamic spirals into uncontrollable population loss (Dennis et al, 2016). As we lose up to 40% of honey bee colonies per year (“Bee Survey”), a question creeps into mind. What would we do without the honey bee?

According to Anand Varma of national geographic, “wild pollinators can no longer meet the pollination demands of our agriculture, so managed bees have become an integral part of our food system”. Each year, bees contribute an estimated $14 billion is to the US crop industry. But detractors say agriculture will sustain itself because the majority of food crops are wind pollinated, and will continue to grow without the honey bee. So while a loss of certain plants is likely, humans will sustain themselves on food crops like corn and wheat. Perhaps the desolation in Barry’s world won’t come to fruition after all. However, discounting the economic or gastronomic disadvantages of losing the honey bee, we simply cannot overlook its impact on biodiversity. As a pollinator with such a large function, its extinction will surely cascade down the ecosystem. The loss of fruits and nuts will make resources scarce for birds and mammals, while the loss of cross-pollination will greatly reduce the evolutionary potential of flora. Without cross-pollination, less variation and speciation will occur, and biodiversity will plummet even faster. Even if extinction is limited to a certain group of crops, the loss of random-chance mating is a great threat to evolutionary conservation.

So what is next for the Honey bee? What is next for us? It’s simple. We need another Bee Movie. It doesn’t have to be a sequel, Hollywood is very good at making reboots these days. We need something to make the bee more charismatic so people will really care about them before they are gone forever. Public support will fund more hypothesis-driven research, focusing on the breakdown of the eusocial structure within the hive. It’s a win-win situation. A world with bees is a world worth saving, so let’s do all we can while they are still around.4614903890_b8ee98bcc7_o

Honeybees by Brainpop CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 

Works Cited

“Bee Survey: Lower Winter Losses, Higher Summer Losses, Increased Total Annual Losses : USDA ARS”.Ars.usda.gov. N. p., 2016. Web. 9 Sept. 2016.

“Colony Collapse Disorder | Protecting Bees And Other Pollinators From Pesticides | US EPA”. Epa.gov. N. p., 2016. Web. 8 Sept. 2016.

Dennis, Brian and William Kemp. “How Hives Collapse: Allee Effects, Ecological Resilience, And The Honey Bee”. PLOS ONE 11.2 (2016): e0150055. Web. 8 Sept. 2016.

vanEngelsdorp, Dennis et al. “Colony Collapse Disorder: A Descriptive Study”. PLOS ONE 4.8 (2009): e6481. Web. 8 Sept. 2016.

Varma, Anan. “The first 21 days of a bee’s life”. TED2015. Web. Mar 2015.

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This entry was posted in Conservation Biology Posts, Conservation Editorials 2016. Bookmark the permalink.

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