According to Project 80’s recent survey, over 70% of Pingry students and non-science faculty agree that common honeybees are endangered. Of this 70%, approximately 30% strongly agree. Does science agree?
Although apis mellifera, or the western honeybee, is not classified as an endangered species on the IUCN red list, there is undeniable scientific evidence supporting the fact that honeybees and other pollinators are threatened. Over the past century, there has been a significant decline in pollinator colonies and diversity among wild populations. Between 1947 and 2005, the United States reported a 59% loss of honeybee colonies.
There are numerous factors responsible for this recent decline. The most important factor is habitat fragmentation and loss. Pollinators require specific habitats, including undisturbed nesting sites and abundant and diverse flower resources. However, urbanization and agriculture result in the conversion of naturally flower-rich habitats to roads, infrastructure and farmland that are inhospitable for pollinators, and therefore threaten their survival.
Another major factor is exposure to agrochemicals, such as pesticides. Synthetic chemicals are often applied to farmland as seed-treatments that later spread throughout the tissue and into the pollen and nectar of flowering crops. When bees pollinate these crops, they come into direct contact with the pesticides, which can target their central nervous system, causing paralysis and death. They can also target the bees’ immune systems and affect their ability to breed. Infected hives, therefore, cannot function adequately and die off.
A third major factor is exposure to parasites and pathogens, including fungi, bacteria and viruses. This often occurs when humans transport bees long distances, especially between countries. Commercial trade of bee colonies around the world is popularly used for crop pollination, but inadvertently results in the redistribution of non-native parasites into native bee species.
These three main factors along with several others have raised concern about a potential “pollination crisis” in the near future. Such an event would have both major ecological and economic implications around the globe. Bees are a vital component to many land ecosystems, providing pollination to wild plants and cultivated crops. Seventy-five percent of crop services come from plants that benefit from insect pollinators, providing a worldwide service worth $215 billion in food production. Unfortunately, the recent decline in bee species has caused a parallel decline in the plants that rely on them.
Clearly, bees play a vital role around the world and the threat of their extinction is both a valid and major concern. In September of 2016, seven species of bees native to Hawaii became the first bees in the United States to be given protection under the Endangered Species Act. Hopefully, similar measures will be taken in the future to support other bee species, including the apis mellifera, and therefore preserve the survival of bees and of Earth’s natural ecosystems.
Caroline Marone ’17
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