Until a few years ago, most people did not recognize the importance of honey bees. Sure everyone knew the story of the “birds and the bees” and understood that bees pollinated flowers, but it was not until the autumn of 2006 that the public came to understand a very important fact: 71 of the 100 most important food crops worldwide depend on pollination by bees. These crops include nuts such as almonds, walnuts, and cashews, fruits such as avocados, lemons, limes, blueberries, grapes, and apples, and vegetables including onions, broccoli, pumpkins, celery, tomatoes, and carrots. Soybeans, cotton, sunflowers, and alfalfa also rely on pollination. In 2012, the value of crops pollinated by bees was estimated at nearly $15 billion in the USA alone.
Recently, honey bee populations have seen a decline. Since 2006, scientists have used the term Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) to describe the problem. The main symptom of CCD is a very low number of adult honey bees in the hive. There is usually a live queen and, mysteriously, no sign of dead honey bees. Sometimes there is still honey in the hive, and immature bees are present. A virus-transmitting parasite of honey bees, Varro mites, is often found in hives experiencing CCD.
It remains unknown if mites cause CCD or simply thrive in weakened colonies. Beyond parasites, scientists are looking to other causes of CCD including pathogens like viruses and bacteria. Some believe the widespread use of potent fungicides weaken the bees and make them more likely to succumb to parasites. Another culprit is the ongoing loss of native habitat where wild honey bees are also experiencing CCD.
While no one is knows exactly what is causing CCD, between 2006 and 2012, beekeepers reported losing about 1/3 of their hives each winter. If such losses continue, they could threaten the entire bee pollination industry. While not all honey bees will die, the cost of rising crop pollination services will push food prices ever higher. CCD is a complex issue with widespread consequences. But scientists and agricultural researchers are hard at work studying the issue and, hopefully, a solution will soon be found.