There has been a lot of speculation, misinformation, and exaggeration regarding the health and wellness of our global bee populations. Are bees becoming extinct, as some have feared, or are they in no danger at all, as others have argued? If the bees were to go extinct, then what would happen?
This article examines the role that bees play in our current ecosystem and economy, the current dangers that the bee population is facing, and what the actual impact of bees going extinct would be. Hopefully, it can clear up any misinformation that readers may have received, and provide a more accurate and honest assessment of the health and wellness of the world's bee population.
A Bit About Bees
Bees are not just any other insect; they are actually a critical part of our global ecosystem. They account for billions of dollars a year in agricultural production based on the effects of their pollination alone.
Pollination is the process of transferring the male gametes of one plant to a female plant where they can be fertilized. This is the main mechanism for reproduction of many flowering plants, which frequently depend on specific species of animals to spread their genetic material. Without natural pollinators like bees, many species would die off due to an inability to reproduce.
The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC) estimates that cross-pollination is part of the reproductive cycle of up to 30% of the world's crops. They also estimate that it also plays a beneficial role in the life cycle of up to 90% of the world's wild plants. While a true valuation of the bees' impact on the global economy is hard to come by, estimations are that bees contribute about $15 billion annually to United States crops alone.
Are Bees Becoming Extinct?
So, are bees becoming extinct? The short answer to this question is No, at present bees are not in danger of going extinct. The long-term answer, however, is more complicated. It is possible to view recent declines in global bee populations as an indicator that the species as a whole is potentially in trouble.
Of the 20,000 species of bee known to exist, there are only eight that are officially listed on the US Fish and Wildlife Service's Endangered List. These eight, however, have all been added to the list within the last five years and it would be easy to view this as the start of a trend that will see other species added in the coming years.
Seven of these species are within one specific bee family, the Hawaiian yellow-faced bee. These bees are native to the Hawaiian Islands, as their name suggests, and can't survive in any other climates due to the fact that they rely on the nectar of certain specific native flower populations in order to survive.
These local species are being pushed out both by human development and by non-native species that have been artificially introduced into the fragile Hawaiian ecosystem. The more their habitats are destroyed, the fewer bees there are to pollinate the remaining plants, further exacerbating the downward spiral of the bees' population.
There is a very real chance that some or all of these endangered families of bees could die off entirely, which would almost certainly lead to the extinction of several species of native plants that rely on Hawaiian yellow-faced bees for pollination. This could cause further ripples across the ecosystem, potentially damaging or destroying an unknown number of plants and animals that only exist in these unique locales.
The eighth species of bee added to the Endangered List has added a new set of concerns for scientist and apiarists, in part because not only was it a bee native to the continental US, but it was also a honeybee. The rusty patched bumblebee used to be widespread across nearly two-thirds of US states, however now it can be found in only 13 states.
It is estimated that up to 88% of the rusty-patched bumblebee have already disappeared. The bees, which get their name from a large reddish patch on their abdomens, require a specific variety of plants to get the nutrition they need to survive. As the places where this is possible decrease due to climate change, habitat destruction, and pesticide usage, so to do the overall numbers of the rusty-patched bumblebee.
At this point, there is a chance that there has already been so much damage done to their numbers that they will never recover. The answer to the question "are bees becoming extinct," is a scary one. Extinction is a very real possibility for at least this specific species of bee.
The real worry is that the rusty-patched bumblebee is the start of a broader trend of bee species disappearing. They are certainly not the only species that is having their habitat destroyed, and there are a variety of other factors that threaten the overall bee population as well.
One factor is a mysterious and terrifying phenomenon called colony collapse disorder (CCD). It is not known exactly why CCD happens to certain colonies. However, the main symptom of the condition is the total disappearance of a colony's worker bees. Their queen, children, and nurses tend to be left behind, as do food stores and seemingly favorable conditions.
Without the workers, however, the colony cannot function and, as the name implies, it collapses. The NRDC estimates CCD to have caused over $5 billion in damage to the global economy per year, a number that has more than doubled since 2006.
One potential factor in the onset of CCD is the use of certain pesticides, particularly those in the neonicotinoid class. These pesticides seep into the plant's pollens, where it gets all over the bees. This can cause nerve damage, loss of memory and direction functions, and other issues that prevent the bees from performing their hive duties.
Another contributing factor to CCD is the increase of the presence of a type of parasite called the varroa mite. Varroa mites feed on bee larvae, which damages new hive numbers. However, they also can be transporters of certain types of viruses that are debilitating or fatal if they enter bee hosts.
While the exact reasons for CCD may never be known, what is clear is that several factors have contributed to the drop in bees. Over 90% of wild bee populations have seen declines in their overall populations. If this trend is not reversed, then humankind could be in serious trouble.
How Would-Be Extinction Impact Us and the Environment?
At the risk of seeming dramatic, the extinction of bees would most likely mean the end of human civilization as we know it. Bees play such an integral role in our food production that removing their influence would cause the human food supply to shift radically. Among the foods that would no longer exist at all outside of a laboratory would be apples, strawberries, almonds, pears, blackberries, broccoli, and most species of citrus.
Perhaps even more dramatic than the disappearances of these basic foodstuffs would be the impacts on the ecosystems that surround them. The overall balances of most of these fragile, interrelated systems would be permanently altered in ways that are impossible to foresee. Bees play a role in pollinating the vast majority of the plants that we as humans consume. Our food supplies overall would shrink very rapidly, and we would most likely not have enough food to provide for our current quantity of humans.
Again, these events are speculative so it is impossible to say what percentage of the human population would be lost. However, the numbers would be dramatic. The types of food that we eat and the methods used to cultivate them would also be forever altered. Biodiversity would shrink, and we could lose access to a wide variety of other natural resources as well.
Are Bees Becoming Extinct - Conclusion
So, are bees becoming extinct? Not yet-though it is sadly possible in the future if we continue to ignore the problem. The rates that bee populations have been declining are alarming and if they continue then extinction, at least for some species of bee, is a real possibility.
Our lives are better with bees in them for literally billions of reasons, and it is clear that most humans would prefer never to find out what would happen if they were to go extinct. Fortunately, there are people and organizations out there that take this problem seriously and are working hard to correct it.
The Pollinator Partnership Honey Bee Health Improvement Project, the Center for Honeybee Research, and Friends of Honeybees are three non-profit initiatives that are working toward reversing bees' downward population trends. Other larger organizations, such as Greenpeace and the Environmental Justice Foundation, have started pro-bee initiatives aimed at ending neonicotinoid usage and at preserving the bees' natural habitats.
There are also plenty of things that you can do from your own home, such as planting local, bee-friendly plants. Start your own bee hotel or, if you have the resources, your own apiary. These gestures may seem small; however, if enough people realize the importance of bees to our ecosystem and society, then these small gestures can add up to big changes.
The next time you hear someone as "are bees becoming extinct," do your best to educate them on possibility of extinction, and the domino effect that their extinction will have.