Wake Up Call

Extreme Honeybee Losses Could Threaten U.S. Food Supply

Pesticides, drought, and a dwindling food supply -- just some of the possible reasons for the loss of nearly one-third of the country's honeybee colonies last winter. Living in Arizona, where Africanized honeybees recently stung a man to death, we might be inclined to celebrate.

See also: - Emily Brown, Arizona's "Queen Bee," Talks Honey

But the truth is bees, at least generally, do a lot more good than harm. In fact, research estimates that one in every three bites of food consumed in the United States is pollinated by bees. And without an adequate bee population, farmers say they simply can't make do.

According to a report by The Bee Informed Partnership, the Apiary Inspectors of America and the United States Department of Agriculture, 31 percent of managed honeybee colonies in the United States were lost last winter. That represents a significant 42 percent increase in losses from a year ago. Though farmers say a 15 percent loss is "acceptable," losses of more than twice that much are deeply concerning.

Researchers have been concerned about honeybee losses since 2006. Rates of losses dropped to 22 percent in the 2011-2012 winter, but this year's stats have reignited concern.

There are quite a few culprits at which people are pointing the finger. A phenomenon called colony collapse disorder, in which honeybees abandon their hives and vanish, could be part of the problem -- though some say that's not likely to be the cause. Others point to a type of pesticides known as neonicotinoids, which were developed in the 1990s and are some of the most commonly used pesticides in the world. The chemicals are thought to weaken the bees' immune systems, leaving them more vulnerable to things including Varroa destructor mites (which suck bee's "blood") and other parasites.

Already, problems are starting to arise as a result of the honeybee deaths. In one case, California almond growers had barely enough colonies to pollinate their $1.2 billion crop this season. And if losses continue at the current rate, instances like these are going to become more and more common. In the future, the dozens of crops pollinated by bees could be in serious danger.

"We're getting closer and closer to the point where we don't have enough bees in this country to meet pollination demands," entomologist Dennis vanEngelsdorp of the University of Maryland told Wired.

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Lauren Saria
Contact: Lauren Saria