Bees. For some they’re just a buzzing, potentially stinging, picnic-pest. Yet the reality is, if bees didn’t exist, our diets would suffer tremendously. For a tiny insect, they play a pretty large role in sustaining our food system, integral to one-third of our entire food supply. We need these worker-bees to survive, yet their own survival is in peril– it’s expected that by 2035, all managed honey bees will disappear. With the possibility of extinction looming over the horizon, beekeepers, food producers and consumers alike are forced to face the troubling consideration of a life without bees. What will our food supply look like? Is there a future of food without these pollinators?
To state it bluntly, a diet without bees would look rather bleak. Not only would the foods we love disappear, but also the foods that we need, as some of the most vitamin and mineral-rich foods depend on bee pollination. Whole Foods released a troubling image of what their grocery store would look like if bees were to go extinct. The produce section went from 453 fruits and vegetables, to a meek 216. Among these vanishing items included apples, avocado, and mangos to name a few. Without bees, we would also see emptier meat and dairy aisles, as many of the plants that livestock rely on for food would cease to exist without pollination.
Normally, beekeepers lose between five and 10 percent of their managed colonies each year to illness, accident, or exposure. However, since 2005, many beekeepers have experienced yearly losses of 30 to 90 percent of their managed colonies. There is no one single cause behind this phenomenon, rather, it’s a combination of things including inappropriate beekeeping practices, monocultures, climate change, and most notably, pesticides. Since the 1990s, farmers have used Neonicotinoids, a type of pesticide which helps to keep bugs away from crops. Neonics are incredibly toxic to bees, disrupting their immune system and making them more susceptible to disease. Many people believe these pesticides to be the main villain behind the bee conflict, as they appeared right around the time that bee populations first took a major hit.
The economy is also facing some bruises from this dilemma, as bee pollination in the U.S. alone accounts for $15 billion in crops. With the population of bees continuing to drop, many beekeepers are responding by raising their pollination fees to make up for the loss in numbers. In 2003, the average fee per hive was around $50; in 2016, that number increased to almost $200. In effect, the cost of certain food items has surged, with many fruits and vegetables showing a dramatic increase in price throughout the country. It’s clear, then, that there is a lot more at stake than just honey if the bee population continues to fall. These tiny buzzing beings play a much larger role than one would think, as they help to turn the wheels in our entire food system.
The reality is that bees are dying off in numbers we can no longer choose to ignore. This unfortunate phenomenon calls attention to the negative impact human's have on the balance of nature. Dying bees scream a message that our current food system needs changing. To ensure that the endangerment of bees doesn’t escalate to outright extinction, there needs to be more intention in the way that we grow and purchase food. Consumers should make informed decisions when shopping, with an overall increased knowledge and concern about whether their food contains pesticides. Correspondingly, farmers should consider using alternative methods to keeping bugs at bay that don’t include toxic pesticides like Neonics. If farmers, consumers, and organizations join together, we can all help reverse some of the issues bees are now facing, and hopefully prevent others from occurring.