Recently the US government announced that seven species of Hawaiian yellow-faced bees have been added to the endangered species list. This news should make us all stop dead in our tracks given that approximately 80% of all food crops in the US and the UK are pollinated by bees, meaning that one third of what we eat is dependent upon pollinators such as bees. As bee populations dwindle because of colony collapse disorder, neonicotinoid insecticides, air pollution, urban development, invasive species, and other environmental factors, global food production faces an uncertain future.
A study published in Science in 2013 showed more than half the wild bee species were lost in the 20th century in the US. Relying on the data of plants and pollinators at Carlinville, Illinois between 1888 and 1891 by entomologist Charles Robertson and data from 1971-72 as well as from 2009-10 to , scientists discovered the changes in pollination seen over the century as widespread forest was reduced to the fragments that remain today.
The Xerces Society reports on this crisis:
All Hawaiian yellow-faced bees strongly depend on an intact community of native plants and are mostly absent from habitats dominated by non-native plant species. These bees require a habitat with a diversity of plants that flower throughout the year so that a consistent source of pollen and nectar is available. Many species nest in the ground, but some nest in hollow stems of plants; the availability of nest sites is another important habitat requirement for these animals.
While only Hawaiian bees have been added to the Endangered and Threatened Wildlife and Plants last week, the US Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed adding the rusty patched bumble bee, a dwindling species once common in the upper midwest and north-eastern United States. We need to be prepared to see more mainland species of bees added in the near future.
In recent years beekeepers from the UK have seen losses of honeybee colonies each winter hovering between 9.6% and 33.8%. After the highest rate of loss in 2012-2013, there was placed a ban on neonicotinoids (also known as neonics) which was followed by a steep reduction of colony loss, moving from 33.8% to 9.6% the following year. Yet, just as the oceans are facing catastrophe and mass extinction, so too are the bee colonies. This is not hyperbole, nor is it conspiracy theory. The facts are well-documented and scientists have been speaking of this eventuality since colony collapse disorder was first documented in 2006.
With the increase of automobile exhaust following pesticides as one of the leading human-made reasons behind colony collapse disorder, the increase of fuel efficient automobiles is not enough to curb the decline of bees. Organisations like the Bumblebee Conservation Trust offers various counter measures to improve the current situation, from the changes of farmland management to the planting of wildflowers and bee-friendly plants. Given the vast loss of the flower-rich habitat (ie. hedgerows, hay meadows and chalk grassland) on which bees depend for food due to the intensification of agriculture over the past seventy years, the planting of wildflowers is key to the recovery of the bee population.
However, bees are not the only species dying out. Other pollinators such as birds, beetles, and butterflies are disappearing at an unprecedented rate along with one-third of honeybees which have declined since 2007 And just earlier this year, the UN warned global industries about the loss of pollinators which would threaten the world's food supply.
With human-made factors such as climate change and pesticides, the parasite Varroa, and the fungus Nosema ceranae affecting bee colonies, there is no clear consensus on any single explanation for colony collapse disorder. What scientists do upon, however, is that engaging in ecologically sound habits, reducing pollution, and banning dangerous pesticides will result in a turnaround for bee populations around the planet.