In fall 2006, beekeepers across North America reported 30-90 percent hive loss. This “beemageddon” appeared to happen as suddenly as an alien abduction, but a recent report from Northampton University in England suggests that the phenomenon may not be so sudden after all. Similar observations were made nearly a century ago.
Now commonly referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the phenomenon has been the subject of research and concern for many environmental scientists. Honeybee populations mostly suffered across North America, and the phenomenon was reported in Europe in multiple countries, including France and Germany.
The main symptom of CCD is very low or no adult honey bees present in the hive, but with a live queen and no dead honey bee bodies present. In other words, the adult bees have simply absconded. Often there is still honey in the hive, and immature bees remain. According to the USDA, beekeepers have experienced unexplained losses over the past century, but it is unsure if these losses are related to the current bee-disappearance crisis.
Along with his colleagues, Northampton’s Jeff Ollerton, lead author of the new report, pored over almost 500,000 records of bee and wasp sightings from the 1850s to the present. They found that local extinctions occurred as early as 1853 and as late as 1990, but about half occurred between 1930 and 1960.
According to the report researchers, these disappearances align with modernizations and changes in British agricultural practices. In the late 19th century, for instance, farmers began to rely more on imported South American guano for fertilizer. Farmers also began to abandon traditional crop rotation, a process of planting legumes or weedy flowers in between new crops, which supports pollinating insect populations.
Beginning in the 1920s, changes in agricultural policy and practices led to an intensification of production, further prompted by the Second World War. Great Britain had relied heavily on imports for food supplies, which pushed the government to advocate radical farming changes in order to increase domestic food production.
“Fundamentally [the decline in bees and wasps] is about a reduction in the size of the area providing food resources on which these pollinators rely,” Ollerton says in a report from The Smithsonian.
Pesticides and other agricultural practices have also been pinpointed in the disappearance of bees, such as in this report released a year ago targeting neonicotinoids in making bees more susceptible to parasites and the gut pathogen Nosema ceranae.
But according to Ollerton and his colleagues, as land resources become increasingly scarce, and more pressure is put on agriculture to produce more food for increasing populations, more bees will die, thus deepening the crisis of food production as fewer crops are pollinated. The answer in getting them back seems to lie in creating space and time for wildflowers to grow and be pollinated, a step that is often overlooked in industrial agriculture.
According to Ollerton, parts of northern Europe, the United States and any other countries that had similar changes in agricultural practices have also experienced pollinator loss.
“The U.S. suffers from the same sort of dumbing down of our landscapes across that same time period for the same reasons,” says Sam Droege of the U.S. Geological Survey Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab with the Smithsonian. “Croplands, pastures, and meadows now grow only crops, no weeds or wildflowers.”
Instituting wildflower programs would foster the growth of pollinator-friendly plant species that may help bring back bees, says Drogege. “We no longer have the luxury of letting Nature find its own level,” he said, “but have to consciously foster wildness and diversity everywhere we live.”
[Editor’s Note 12/16/14 – An earlier version of this article contained a photo of a hoverfly on a flower.]