Are Bees Really Disappearing? • Friends of the Earth

Are Bees Really Disappearing?

Are Bees Really Disappearing?

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Bees are disappearing. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about it. It’s a sad thing to become the norm, but year after year, the populations of certain species of bees keep declining.

So why are bees disappearing? It’s for a plethora of reasons — from the rampant use of toxic pesticides to habitat loss. Bees are losing habitat to urban sprawl, plowing up grasslands and prairies for agriculture, and the changing climate.  

And most agricultural farmland in the U.S. is contaminated year after year with toxic pesticides. These chemicals are designed to “kill pests” — but their toxicity is impacting bees as well. 

Types of Bees

Honeybees, carpenter bees, bumblebees, oh my! There are over 3,600 species of bees native to North America. Globally there are over 20,000 bee species.

We won’t list all of them, but we thought you might like these fun facts about our pollinator friend the bee.

  • The smallest bee is the Perdita minima
    • It is less than 2 mm long 
  • The largest bee is the Megachile pluto
    • Females have a wingspan of a whopping 63.5 mm
  • Bees are found on every continent except Antarctica
  • Only female bees have stingers 
  • Male bees have bigger eyes
  • Not all bees are black and yellow

Did that last fact surprise you? If so, you’ll be interested to know that bees can come in many different colorations including blue, green, red, and black. Some are striped. Some have a metallic sheen. But all bees have one thing in common: they are all pollinators! 

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One of the most common household names for these popular pollinators is the honeybee. Honeybees did not originate in the United States, or even North America for that matter. Honeybees have evolved over millions of years. The first recorded existence of the bee was in Myanmar and was dated to be 100 million years old! Fourteen million years ago, a honeybee species lived in North America, but the species went extinct.  

Fast forward a few million years, give or take, to 1622. This is when colonists brought over the honeybee from Europe to pollinate crops and make honey. By the late 1630s, colonies of honeybees were spread throughout Massachusetts. By 1776 they had migrated their way to Michigan, and by 1800 to Missouri, Arkansas, Texas, and Oklahoma. Finally, by the 1850s the swarms had reached the Pacific coast states. 

Out of the 20,000 bee species on the planet, there are only seven species that produce honey. Honeybees do more than just produce honey, though. They play a vital role in pollinating crops like melons, apples, and almonds. They are also the only bee that is considered “domesticated.” The difference between wild bees and domesticated bees is that domesticated bees are managed by humans. Beekeepers raise and manage bees to make honey and pollinate crops.

Wild Bees

Wild bees are not managed by humans. They spend their lives in their native range, pollinating as they go. Sadly, wild bees are also seeing drastic declines in their population and are taking the brunt of the threats from humans. They face rampant pesticide use across their food resources, are exposed to diseases, and have lost much of their habitats to urban sprawl and agriculture. 

And wild bees are just as important as honeybees. Bumble bees, solitary bees, and other wild bee species help assist in pollination and biodiversity. In a study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, researchers found that only 250 female blue orchard bees were all that was needed to pollinate an acre of apples. For honeybees to complete the same task, it would have required up to two honeybee hives with 20,000 workers in each. 

While honeybees are the primary commercial pollinators, wild bee species play an important role in keeping wild flowers and other plants pollinated — even amidst growing threats.

Endangered Bees

This list of bees endangered in the United States continues to grow. American bumblebees are facing extinction — with a population decline of 89% in the last two decades. The Franklin’s bumblebee hasn’t been seen since 2006. The rusty patched bumblebee joins them on the endangered species list. Current estimates show that 1 in 6 bee species are regionally extinct across the globe — and 40 percent of the remaining species are vulnerable to extinction.

Bees are important. They pollinate food crops and flowering plants that other creatures rely on — humans included. And if bees went extinct, our delicate ecosystems and food supply would never be the same.

Why are Bees Disappearing?

As we already explored, pesticides are a major contributor to the decline of bees. Beyond the toxic chemicals that are leading to their demise, bees are also up against:

  • Invasive species including parasites, predators, and disease-causing pathogens
  • Habitat destruction
  • Climate change
    • Some bee species can only survive in select temperatures. Climate change is pushing them away from some of their native habitats. 
  • Poor nutrition

The combination of factors makes it even more important to push legislators to protect our pollinators. Without bees, we could see a  devastating impacts on the Earth’s ecosystems. 

Protect the Bees

Protection of bees will take us all. It will take governments working together to stop giant pesticide corporations — like Bayer-Monsanto — from selling pesticides that kill pollinators for a profit. It will take food retailers to make commitments to get pollinator-toxic pesticides out of their supply chains. And it will take people like you to hold them to these commitments. Stand up for the bees to help save them.

If you’re interested in learning what you can do to help save bees, explore further here

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