Weird Nature What's Really Going On With Honeybee Extinction  

Aaron Edwards
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Over the past few years, we have all seen articles begging the question, "Are honeybees going extinct?" Well, we're here to tell you that the "honeybee extinction" is more complicated than that. For one, no - the honeybee is not going extinct. In fact, honeybee populations are going up. Now, this partly because they are essentially a managed domesticated animal and beekeepers are simply responding to higher rates of bee death by increased breeding. But they are in no danger of dying off any time soon. There are plenty of bees (and other beneficial insects), however, that ARE in danger. Why? Habitat loss, climate change, pollution and sprawl are the main culprits. Varroa mite and other viruses can be included in the list, along with the possibility of pesticides playing a role (though not yet understood with vigorous - and difficult to conduct - field studies). 

Native bees - unlike the imported honeybee, which is not from the Americas - are dying off and many have actually already gone. In 2017 eight species of bumblebee were officially declared extinct. These bees are native pollinators - not only do they do a great job of pollinating all the plants and trees that are not food crops (and essential to the ecosystem) but they also pollinate food crops that honeybees refuse to work their magic on, like tomatoes. There are a variety of very important native bees that deserve to be included in this 'beepocalypse'; more, in fact, than the protected honeybee.

While the extinction of our pollinators may not seem like a huge deal at first, it's worth noting that the importance of bees, butterflies, wasps and other pollinators is exponential. Many people imagine bees as a club of buzzing, angry stingers flying around a hive waiting to attack the first person who comes across them - but that couldn't be further from the truth. Pollinators are our best friends, it's just that most of us don't realize it.

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Photo:  Jessie Eastland/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Here Are All The Things That Pollinators Do For Us


Ever see a bee land on a flower, collect some pollen, and then fly off into the world? Turns out that little guy traveled a really long way to land on that flower, and as a result was able to share pollen from all the other plants he visited across the land. Because of that journey, we get all sorts of wonderful snacks including pumpkins, apples, and cucumbers. There are a large number of plants that respond well (as in, grow better and stronger) to being pollinated by bees, including the canola plant.

So, bees not only improve the livelihood of farmers, but they also provide us with the foods we love. On average, one in every three bites of food we eat is the result of successfully pollinated plants.

Oh yeah, and honeybees also make delicious, delicious honey.

However the story of our planet's pollinators does not begin and end with the European Honeybee - a non-native insect that is strictly managed and basically a domesticated animal at this point. Bumblebees, for example, are a wild pollinator that serves up as large a - if not larger- role in pollinating the plants and trees of the planet. There are thousands of species of wild bees that you probably never see because of their solitary nature who are out there working diligently to keep our ecosystem running. They don't have an advocate in the media, most people don't even know they are suffering. When they go, we will have to rely solely on our domesticated hives of honeybees -- a bee that can't even pollinate some of the foods we eat or non-food-crop plants and trees. The "bee-pocalypse" is happening, just not to honeybees.

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Photo: Richard Bartz, Munich Makro Freak & Beemaster Hubert Seibring/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.5

Hundreds Of Bee Species Are Dying Off


After an in-depth evaluation of more than 1,400 species of bees, the Center for Biological Diversity determined that more than half of them are declining. And of that 1,400, a quarter are at risk of extinction. 

Why is this information important? Well, diversity is essential when it comes to the wild ways of nature. The more diverse an ecosystem is, the better chance it has of withstanding catastrophic events. The less bee species there are, the less chance they have of surviving as a whole.

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Photo:  Muhammad Mahdi Karim/Wikimedia Commons/GFDL 1.2

The Problem Is Known As Colony Collapse Disorder


In 2006 and 2007, something started to happen to managed honeybee colonies. They started to die in droves and no one could figure out why.

Say there is a hive with a healthy queen and brood, as well as a great deal of food (honey) in reserve. However, suddenly all of the worker bees die. Without the worker bees, there's no one to keep the hive running and the rest of the population quickly dies. In some cases, the worker bees just up and leave, never to return. Either way, it's a death sentence to the hive as a whole.

To this day, more than a decade later, scientists still have yet to determine the exact cause for the devastating phenomenon but links have been found with bee stressors: climate change, varroa mite, and viruses.

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Photo: Richard Bartz, Munich Makro Freak & Beemaster Hubert Seibring/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 2.5

The Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus


There are a few terrible viruses that affect bees. This one in particular is an RNA virus that systematically infects hives by attacking every type of bee at any stage of their lives. Once infected, the virus interferes with their protein production and triggers a violent immune suppressant that makes them susceptible to other viruses. Bees infected with the virus can be seen suffering from shivering wings and paralysis, and many have been seen dying just outside their hive.

Like humans, bees can become immune to viruses and it has long been a goal to be able to protect valuable honeybee colonies with vaccinations. In the past few years, progress has been made to understand how they develop these protections. New research has made inroads to understanding how bees pass immunities to their offspring, helping scientists develop vaccines against these bee-killers.