How Honeybees – And Humans – Are Being Stung By Environmental Problems

Robbie Shell and Sam Torres discuss the crisis facing honeybees

It’s just a tiny insect, but the humble honeybee has a huge impact on our way of life. Aside from providing honey, honeybees are responsible for pollinating a majority of the crops consumed in the United States and around the world, from blueberry patches in Maine to almond groves in California. But honeybees are facing both natural and manmade threats that are killing them by the millions. A major result of these threats — colony collapse disorder — is already being felt in the beekeeping industry, which has reported astounding losses in recent years.

Robbie Shell, who previously was the editorial director at [email protected], has written a book for middle grade kids titled Bees on the Roof that calls attention to the scope of these problems. Her book is part of a recent trend in publishing called “environmental fiction,” which combines a fictional story with factual information to help readers gain a better understanding of an issue related to our environment. Shell hopes her book will teach young people about the importance of honeybees and other pollinators and perhaps even inspire some to become beekeepers, like the kids in Bees on the Roof.

She recently spoke about the situation facing honeybees on the [email protected] radio show on Sirius XM radio along with Sam Torres, a beekeeper and horticulturalist who owns Keystone Colonies near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Honey bees Honeybees
Image source: Pixabay

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

[email protected]: What spurred you to write Bees on the Roof?

Robbie Shell: It started five years ago when my brother, who’s a backyard beekeeper in Philadelphia, brought me a jar of honey. It was so delicious that I decided to research how honey is made and the little insects that make it. I started reading books. I did web searches. I went to bee demos at nature centers, and the more I got immersed in honeybees, the more I realized that they are amazing insects and we still don’t know a whole lot about them. What we do know is they have very sophisticated navigation systems, communication systems, food production systems — probably more efficient than many of the systems humans have.

What really hooked me was when I saw a video of bees marching out of a shoe box-sized package that was sent through the mail to a beekeeper in Pennsylvania. They were marching single file out of this package — no pushing, no shoving, no one trying to get ahead of each other. They were just intent on getting out of the box into their new home, setting up the hive, taking care of the queen. It was almost inspirational to me: the idea that you could have a society where there were no prima donnas, including the queen, who by the way has a very tough life ahead of her. Instead, they’re all focused on the common good. Plus, I’m kind of the human equivalent of the female worker bee. I thought, “This is a matriarchal society where females rule. There’s no king. There are a few lazy drones whose only job is to mate with the queen, and then they’re toast. They die or they’re kicked out of the hive.”

“We have a big problem. People recognize what it is, but no one is willing to launch a concerted effort to help the bees.” –Robbie Shell

I wrote an essay for The Wall Street Journal on how much I loved honeybees. In it, I said I thought I might write a book. Well, when you say that, everyone says, “So where’s the book? How is it coming?” As I continued my research, I came across colony collapse disorder. It’s a devastating syndrome that’s killing millions of honeybees in the United States and around the world, and it’s very damaging to agriculture, to commercial bee keepers and to consumers.

[email protected]: Bees are a part of the agriculture industry that is not thought of very often.

Shell: They’re not, yet they add $15 billion worth of value to crops every year. Put another way, about 70 of the top 100 crops in the U.S. are pollinated by honeybees, including most of the vegetables, fruits and nuts that we eat. Meanwhile, in this past year, 42% of the hives collapsed. That’s a huge number compared with about 31% over the last 10 years. So, we have a big problem. People recognize what it is, but no one is willing to launch a concerted effort to help the bees.

[email protected]: Sam, could you explain colony collapse disorder and the impact that it’s having?

Sam Torres: Colony collapse disorder is an event which was first [identified] in 2006 by David Hackenberg, a commercial beekeeper from Pennsylvania. He experienced a 60% to 80% loss of his colonies. If he has 1,000 colonies, it means almost his whole business was wiped out. What happens then is that you’re very limited in what you’re able to do because you’re experiencing these types of losses every single year. It’s costing beekeepers more and more money every year to keep their bees.

Colony collapse disorder is a combination of things — monoculture cropping, unsustainable practices in beekeeping, and diseases and pathogens we did not experience 20 years ago. We are experiencing them now, the major one being the varroa mite. If you ball your fist and put it up to your body, that is the proportion that a varroa mite has to a honeybee’s body. The varroa mite itself does not kill the honeybee. It sucks out its blood and debilitates the bee to the point where it is no longer able to combat the pathogens that it would normally be able to [fight off].

[email protected]: So once it has the mite, it’s pretty much over for the honeybee — especially if the mite is able to work within the body of the bee for a decent amount of time?

Torres: That’s correct. What’s happening now in beekeeping is we’re shifting towards learning to live with the varroa mite. We’ve realized that this is not going anywhere, so we [kill the mites] by, for example, using organic chemicals like thymol, which is derived from thyme.

[email protected]: In South Carolina, millions of bees were wiped out because of spraying for the Zika virus.

Shell: That gets to another one of the causes of colony collapse disorder, which is insecticides. There is a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids, which are sprayed on the plants and the seeds of plants. It’s thought that they circulate in the plant tissues and [get picked up by] the bees as they are pollinating the flowers. Some scientists believe these neonics affect the bee’s nervous system and make them unable to find their way home. If they can’t find their way home, they can’t support the hive and the hive collapses. So, that’s a direct impact, a direct cause of colony collapse disorder.

To be fair to both sides, the big chemical manufacturers like Bayer and Monsanto and Syngenta claim that their products are not the problem and that these insecticides are necessary to protect our food

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