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Protecting Our Pollinators: Steps Taken to Stabilize Honey Bee Colonies

By Danielle RaginPublished November 6, 2014

Until recently, most of the American public wrote off bees as menaces and overlooked the vital role they play in nature and agriculture. However, mysterious disappearances of honeybee colonies has raised awareness about these important creatures and increased efforts to sustain bee populations.

By Danielle Ragin, 11/6/14

Aphiphobia, or the fear of bees, is fairly common in the United States.  These picnic-ruining pests were typically seen as menaces until recently, when their mysterious decline reminded people about the important role they play in nature and agriculture.  Many scientists and civilians are now focusing more on sustaining honeybee populations.  They are working to support these creatures and to prevent colony declines.

Africanized honey bees were introduced in the 1950s in Brazil and arrived in the U.S. in 1990. They were soon labeled as "killer bees" after being associated with human deaths, which diminished their already unfavorable reputation.  A horror movie, The Swarm, focused on a deadly swarm of African bees and reinforced the murderous image of these tiny creatures.  Once the panic surrounding ferocious bees subsided, bees seemed to fade from the public eye.  This changed when stories about inexplicable disappearances of bee colonies across the United States began flooding the news in early 2007.

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) refers to the abrupt disappearance of adult bees in the hive.  There have been examples of large losses of bee colonies in history; however, in this instance no dead bodies were found in the hives and some beekeepers experienced losses of 80 to 100 percent of their colony populations.  When reports of colony collapses continued surfacing and scientists could not pinpoint specific causes, people started to realize the implications that massive losses of honeybees could have.

Pollination by bees produces approximately 30% of U.S. food.  A Cornell University study also estimated that honey bees pollinate $14 billion worth of seeds and crops in the United States each year.  Without honeybees, the agricultural and food industries would collapse.

Worried about the consequences of continued bee colony decline, the honeybee became a symbol of the environmental action.  People started taking up hobbies such as urban beekeeping to sustain bee populations.  Beekeeping was legalized in New York City in 2010 and the pastime gained popularity.  More women started practicing the traditionally male-dominated hobby and awareness about bees and the role pollinators play in food production grew.

Researchers from different fields also started focusing more on bees in response to the CCD dilemma.  Many people blamed neonicotinoids, a class of neuroactive insecticides resembling nicotine, for the mysterious collapses of honeybee colonies.  Although CCD was likely caused by multiple factors, including nutritional and pesticide stresses, neonicotinoids can be especially harmful to honeybees.  As a result of this finding, scientists have increased research on this type of insecticides and its environmental impacts.

Furthermore, researchers are now finding that microscopic killer bugs, known as phages, can protect bees from devastating disease.  Unlike antibiotics, phages exist naturally in the environment and each phage only attacks one unique bacterium.  Once the perfect phage is identified to fight a specific bacteria, it can be replicated in a lab and used for treatment.  Although the research at Brigham Young University focused on the use of phages to treat bee colonies, phages can potentially be applied to humans and transform the medical field.

Prior to the CCD crisis, people rarely thought of bees as more than pests.  They did not worry about the health of bees or their importance in food production.  Now people are approaching beekeepers in New York City
to learn more about bees and deepen their appreciation for their role in sustaining the environment. More efforts are being made to increase bee colony security, which will protect our environment and food supplies.