It’s National Pollinator Week in the United States, and on Monday, Dr. Ed Spevak of the St. Louis Zoo’s Invertebrate Program – an expert on native North American bees – spoke to a group of Monsanto employees Monday about bees. Specifically, he talked about the diversity of the global bee population (globally, 20,000 species; 250 species of bumble bees alone) and the importance of bees and other pollinators for agriculture (54 percent of crops in the U.S. alone depend upon pollinators).
Spevak also talk about the problems faced by the beekeeping industry.
In the last five years, one third of the managed bee colonies in the U.S. have been lost, and for reasons both clear and unclear. “For a long time, people said it was cell phones causing the problems. It wasn’t. Then it was said to be Bt corn. It wasn’t that, either.
“We call it Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) because we don’t know what it is,” he said. “We know disease and pathogens are involved – viruses, mites, possibly poor diets and the misuse of insecticides, including in the home garden. It could be any and all of these things.” The biggest problem, Spevak said, is that there are no bee bodies to examine and study.
“While we’ve heard a lot about it in the U.S.,” he said, “we’re also getting reports from Brazil and China – this is not isolated to the United States.”
At least 12 viruses have been identified in both honey bees and native bees, he said. Other issues possibly connected to CCD include loss and degradation of habitat and pollution.
Another problem faced by the beekeeping industry is the declining number of people involved in the business. “Since 1950, we’ve lost 50 percent of the managed honey bee hives because a lot of people have gotten out of the business,” he said. (In recent years, the number of hobby beekeepers has considerably increased, but there are still fewer colonies overall.)
What’s needed to address the biological issue (or issues) is what Spevak calls “ecological resilience,” a kind of biological “insurance.”
Native bees, for example, can be an insurance policy against the ongoing losses of honey bees, he said.
Numerous programs and experiments are underway by universities, institutions like the St. Louis Zoo, beekeepers and private industry – improving natural habitats, landscape improvements such as on highway roadsides, undercropping fruit trees with plants like dandelions, research on mites and diseases, and enhancing supplies of clean water (all bees need water).
Bee health is critically important to agriculture. “You see all the wildflowers in nature,” Spevak said, “and you think the purpose is for you to enjoy the beauty of it all. Actually, those flowers are there for the bees, so that they can do the job they need to do.”
Beyond the Rows: The Importance of Bees to Agriculture
Beeologics: Restoring Bee Health