The Buzz on Bees

In class this week we discussed conventional and sustainable agriculture, and the challenges that prevent sustainable agriculture from becoming more prevalent.  One of the issues we discussed was the fact that conventional agriculture appears to be cheaper than sustainable agriculture; however, this is due to the fact that conventional agriculture doesn’t factor in all of the hidden costs into the price.  One such hidden cost was the billions of dollars a year in environmental damages, health problems, and the loss of wildlife, which reminded me of a research project I worked on last year at Central Virginia Governor’s School.  My group looked at the declining number of honeybees and how if nothing is done, it will affect the biosphere over the next 50 years.

Around the world a decline in honey bee populations has become a pressing environmental issue.  Honeybees are important as they help sustain biodiversity, pollinate approximately one-third of the global food supply, and contribute to approximately 90% of sexual reproduction of angiosperms.  According to this article, “of the 100 crop species that provide 90 per cent of the world’s food, over 70 are pollinated by bees.” Reasons for decline include habitat fragmentation, agriculture, grazing, and Colony Collapse Disorder.  As humans expand further into natural habitats for developments or agriculture, they reduce the number of plants that can function in pollination.  Conventional agriculture is based on the large-scale growth of one species, which displaces native plants and changes the biodiversity of a region.  Grazing destroys the bees’ natural habitats and also decreases native plant diversity as animals selectively feed on certain plants.  Colony Collapse Disorder has been observed in 35 US states so far and is characterized by the sudden death of adult worker bees when they’re away from the hive.  Scientists are still investigating causes for CCD; however, some probable causes include decreased nutritional fitness and chemical contamination.  Nutritional fitness is determined by the number of honey bees that must share food and how healthy the plants are that are available for pollination.  The use of pesticides can lead to a high death rate in bees and herbicides can kill native flora that they rely on for food.

The effects of honeybee decline are costly and far reaching. Currently, commercial pollination by honeybees is a $15-20 billion industry.  As there are less pollinators available to pollinate flowers, fewer get pollinated and as a result there is decreased seed and fruit production, which leads to increased costs of production and greater demand causing market prices to skyrocket.   As part of our project, we did a  mathematical analysis taking into account birth and death rates for a healthy bee population with a starting number of 1.5 million and discovered that in 50 years the number would grow to 2.7 million; however, when using the numbers for the sick bee population, the population drops to 273,000.  Using these numbers, we were able to model the effects on crop production over 50 years, which we found to be a 44% decrease in apples, broccoli, carrots, and onions; a 32% decrease in alfalfa/hay/seed and a 3% of soybeans.

Unfortunately, with conventional agriculture, the human response to a decline in crop yield may be simply to convert more land into farmland to make up for the decrease in crop profits.  This would only make the problem worse as habitat fragmentation and mono-culture increase.  The effects of a decline in bee population are huge and it is only one of many problems conventional agriculture contributes to.  Therefore, it is important to implement sustainable agriculture practices, such as crop diversity and the efficient use of inputs, such as pesticides.



3 Responses to “The Buzz on Bees”

  1. brittanycombs says:

    Great detailed post! It’s awesome that you had a chance to to study this issue so intensely. I also wrote a blog on CDD, first introduced to the issue when my uncle’s hive (along with many others in southern GA) died quickly and without cause a few years back. It’s scary to think that we rely so heavily on bee’s for agriculture, almost as much as we rely on the pesticides and genetic modification etc. that could be killing them off. It’s a vicious cycle that needs to be brought into the light, good thing so many of us blogged about it!

  2. kbrown says:

    Thanks! I definitely learned a lot from that project. It was a really good way to explore things that were relevant to the world today, but we couldn’t cover in class.

  3. Dr. Szulczewski says:

    Wow! You could teach a class on this. Be sure to check out Brittany’s and Elise’s posts on bees, too. As I said to them, I’m so glad you were able to share so much more information than we had time for in class.