An Endangered Food System: A World Without Bees

Olivia deGregory

Written by Olivia deGregory | Edited by Carol Coutinho

March 18, 2021

Featured Image by Moerschel, Will. “World Without Bees”. PNG. Jun 2021.

When you see a bee, what do you do? Do you try to swat at it? Do you panic because you are allergic to bees? Bees get a bad rep due to their pesky little stinger, but the truth is, we need bees in order to survive. The problem is, bees are endangered. That’s right – without bees, our food system would essentially collapse. In fact honey bees are used to pollinate over 100 crops grown commercially in North America. This means that one-third of all of our food relies on a pollinator. Pollinators are so vital that they contribute more than 24 billion dollars to the US economy! You might want to think twice before you take a swing at the next bee you see!

Fun Fact: bees do not want to sting you! Once a bee stings you, they die. Bees will only sting you if they feel threatened, so trying to hit a bee will only increase your chances of getting stung. If one comes near, try to remain calm until it flies away, it probably just thinks you smell nice!

Labeled diagram of flower parts
Max. “Parts of a Flower.” Trees, 2019, www.trees.com/gardening-and-landscaping/flowers.

So, how does pollen get from the stamen of one plant to the stigma of another? Pollinators! There are several ways that pollination can occur. People can transfer pollen from a stamen to a stigma themselves, but this process is relatively time consuming. It is not enough to just pollinate the stigma once – if a fruit-bearing plant is not properly pollinated, it may lead to misshapen fruit!

A Bee’s Role in Pollination

Bees are considered the best pollinators because they do it naturally! Bees have specific roles within their colonies. One of those roles is known as a “worker” bee – these are the bees that go out and collect food for the hive. As bees forage for nectar and pollen from flowering plants, they brush against the stamen, which is covered in pollen. Bees are covered in tiny hair that catch the pollen and attract it through electrostatic forces. The bees then groom themselves by brushing the pollen off of the hairs using their legs. Some species of bees have a special storage area, known as “pollen baskets” on the backs of their legs which helps them transport large amounts of pollen back to the hive. The nectar they gather is storage in a special stomach known as a “crop” – the nectar is then later regurgitated and turned into honey. 

bees returning to hive entrance

Bees also have a special way of seeing flowers, allowing them to locate pollen sources. Bees are able to see ultraviolet wavelengths, which forms a target on flowers – the plant’s way of ensuring a bee will come and help pollinate it. Bees can see color five times faster than humans – the fastest in the animal world. When bees find a great food source, they perform the “waggle dance” – a series of movements that tells the other worker bees exactly where to find the source of food. This dance is incredibly specific, even letting the other bees know what angle the flower is in reference to the sun!

Fun fact: all worker bees are female! Male bees – called “drones” only leave the hive to reproduce, which kills them. 

Foods that Rely on Bees for Pollination:

Not every plant can only be pollinated by bees, but bees are considered the most important and efficient of all pollinators. Below is a list of foods that rely primarily on bees to help them pollinate. Without bees, these foods may cease to reproduce, and may face endangerment. 

  • Alfalfa
  • Almonds
  • Apples
  • Asparagus
  • Beans
  • Beets
  • Blackberries
  • Blueberries
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Buckwheat
  • Cabbage
  • Cantaloupe
  • Cauliflower
  • Celery
  • Cherries
  • Chestnuts
  • Chives
  • Clover
  • Cranberries
  • Cucumber
  • Currants
  • Eggplant
  • Flax
  • Garlic
  • Gooseberries
  • Grapes
  • Horseradish
  • Kale
  • Lettuce
  • Mustard
  • Onions
  • Parsley
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Plums
  • Pumpkins
  • Radishes
  • Raspberries
  • Rhubarb
  • Squash
  • Strawberries
  • Sunflowers
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Turnip
  • Watermelon
dead corn

The Problem:

Bees are endangered. They are facing various threats to their existence. Some scientists have found that bee populations are declining in areas where temperatures are rising, meaning that global warming may become an increasing threat to bees. Bumblebees specifically prefer cooler weather – their larger fuzzy bodies are more suited for the cold. Bees stay inside their hives for the winter, constantly vibrating to keep the inside of the hive warm enough to survive. As temperature changes become more common, fluctuations can lead to increased bee mortality. 

Bees use temperature as a gauge for when winter is over so they may leave the hive again. When we experience a random warm day in the middle of winter, (which are becoming more common due to climate change) bees think it is safe to leave the hive – then as the temperature drops over the following days, bees get confused and may end up dying in the cold. In 2017, beekeepers in the United States lost approximately 40 percent of their managed honeybee colonies, according to the Bee Informed Partnership.

Another reason bees are endangered is because of pesticides applied to agricultural crops. Many pesticides contain neonicotinoids which can be fatal for most species of bees. This creates quite a problem – bees are needed to pollinate plants, yet we coat our plants with substances which kill them! Neonicotinoids were originally thought to be harmless to bees, but some studies are finding that they may impair bees’ ability to forage for pollen and locate flowers. Neonicotinoids are now the most widely used insecticide in the world, meaning the bee populations globally are at risk. 

beekeeping inspecting hive

Effects of Pesticides on Bees

Laboratory studies at Cornell which investigated honey bees found that neonicotinoids are associated with the following outcomes:

  • Increased mortality 
  • Impaired feeding 
  • Impaired locomotion
  • Altered learning and memory 
  • Impaired foraging 
  • Reduced immunity 

Moreover, lab studies also found that neonicotinoids affect bumble bees in the following ways:

  • Increased mortality
  • Reduced colony growth
  • Reduced brood production 
  • Reduced nest construction 
  • Impaired feeding
  • There is contradicting evidence for the effect on locomotion and longevity
When we factor in the natural predators that bees usually face along with climate change and increased use of neonicotinoids, bee populations are at high risk for decreasing populations.
bumblebee inside purple flower

Pollinator Alternatives:

As honeybee populations decline, farmers and environmental scientists are searching for an alternative. People have begun looking into types of bees for pollination, since only five species are commonly used in commercial agriculture. On the opposite side of the spectrum – the man made side, undergraduates are Morehead State University designed “The Pollinizer”, a drone  attachment designed to mimic bee pollination. They designed this drone attachment with the goal of reducing the stress on bees, and as a worse-case scenario alternative to losing bee population permanently. 

 

Other Pollinators:

Of course, bees are not the only pollinators in the world, but they are often recognized for being the best pollinators. Here are some other species that deserve recognition for their role in pollination. 

  • Birds: flowers that have long tubular shapes are perfect for hummingbirds to reach! Moreover, there are over 2000 species of birds that feed on nectar.
  • Bats: for flowers that bloom at night, bats are the ideal pollinators. According to the USDA Forest Service, over 300 species of fruits rely on bats to help them pollinate! 
  • Butterflies: these beauties are often seen flitting flower to flower, and with them they carry grains of pollen that stick to their bodies. Butterflies can fly longer distances than bees, but they are not equipped to carry as much pollen.
  • Wind: for plants that lack brightly colored flowers to attract bees and birds, the wind is a vital ecosystem component for reproduction. A strong gust of wind can carry seeds and pollen, assisting conifers and grasses in pollination.
  • Water: similar to wind pollination, water such as rain or streams can transport pollen from one area to another. This mainly occurs in aquatic plants in ponds and along the waterline. 
While these pollinators all play a vital role in keeping a balanced ecosystem, none do it quite as efficiently as bees. We cannot look to these other pollinators to fill the role that bees play – we must act now to stop bee endangerment.

Bee Kind, Bee Proactive!

Hopefully by now you can understand how vital bees are to our food systems, and to our survival. Without bees, we would lose much of the foods we love to eat and that we rely on to feed global populations. We challenge you to take action this week to give bees a helping hand! Plant a flower garden or buy some honey from a local beekeeper! It may not seem like much, but bees can use all our support. Researching where your food comes from and if it harmful pesticides were used on it gives you the power to support farmers who take care of bee’s needs!

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