The Mystery of the Missing Bees (Whole Paper)

May 31, 2012
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Imagine going to the grocery store with a list full of delicious, juicy fruits and veggies you need to buy like tomatoes, apples, and peppers. You grab a cart, and as you weave through the produce, you see nothing on your list, only corn, beans, and rice! How did this happen? Did the store not receive a delivery that day? Scientists are warning us that this could be a possible scenario in our future. Because honey bees are mysteriously disappearing, so could our variety of food.

There are numerous endangered species around the world, and honey bees may become one of them. One-third of bees, in fact, have vanished in the U.S. since 2007. In some areas of the country, eighty percent of these buzzing creatures have disappeared in the last six months. According to May Berenhaum, PhD, University of Illinois at Urbana-Chaimpagne, six hundred thousand out of 2.6 million honey bee colonies have just vanished. Scientists call this phenomenon Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) where mass evacuations of adult bees have taken place, leaving no trace of their whereabouts. Typically, sick bees deliberately leave the hive to die, but why so many? This mystery isn’t just occurring in the United States; it’s a worldwide trend as well.

Bees cross-pollinate, or transfer pollen from one flower’s male sex organs (stamens) to a similar flower’s female sex organs (pistils), enabling plants to produce fruits and vegetables. Their feathery hairs on their bodies attract the pollen, creating static electricity. When they land on another flower, some of the pollen brushes off near the flower’s ovary. These flowers will eventually develop into fruit. In return for their “work”, bees will collect nectar and pollen that is brought back to the hive in order to make honey, which is used to feed their young. Bees serve an important function in our environment. They’re the number one pollinator of plants. In fact, three-fourths of all plants existing on this planet are dependent on pollinators like bees. Therefore, if bees disappear, our variety of plants will become severely limited.

Scientists have developed several theories why the bee population is declining. The cell phone theory was the first to be tested. Scientists placed a ringing cell phone near the hives of hundreds of bees. They hypothesized that the radiation from the cell phones was disturbing the bees’ sense of direction, but the results were not conclusive. In America, many bees are disappearing far from mobile phone signals.
Another theory is that Varroa mites have attacked the bees again. In the 1980s, these parasitic mites fed on bee blood, killing half of honey bees in the U.S. However, this theory does not fully explain why bees are disappearing now. Biologist Gene Robinson, University of Illinois at Chicago, stated that if mites were the problem, bees would have been found dead on the ground near the hives. There was no evidence of dead bees around their homes.

Pesticides is another theory. Scientists belive that chemicals in pesticides may affect both the bees’ memory and immune systems. In France, biologists noticed that less urban bees had vanished than rural bees. Scientists hypothesized that fewer pesticides were used in the city. However, even in areas with no pesticide use, bees are still evacuating their hives.

Scientists have also suggested that CCD is caused by a combination of viral and bacterial infections which give bees diseases like AIDS (auto-immune defiency syndrome). Forensic biologists at Columbia University, performing bee autospies, have discovered pathogens and other infectious organisms inside the bee corpses. It seems that one kind of infection is never found alone. Autospies suggest the bees died of a lethal combination of viruses and bacteria or bacteria and fungus, and so forth.

Another possibility why bee population is decreasing is malnutrition. On most large farms, bees only pollinate one type of crop. As a result, bees do not obtain a lot of different nutrients, even if they consume a lot of “food”. In the same way, if humans ate only apples, we would add a lot of Vitamin A or C to our diets, but we would miss out on fat, protein, minerals, etc. Malnutrition decreases the effectiveness of any immune system. So the bees could be malnourished and be dying off.

How does this decline in bee population affect us? Farmers are “hiring” bees from as near as Florida to as far as Australia to pollinate their fields. It costs about nine million dollars per field, and this high price is passed down to consumers. Yet still there are not enough bees to work the local land. We rely a lot on those bees to give us a variety of food. CCD may result in huge drop in food supply, and fruits and vegetables would become more expensive and harder to find. According to beekeepers, without bees, we would be eating only corn, beans, and rice. Only plants that reproduce by wind pollination would survive. We, perhaps like the bees, would become malnourished.
Believe it or not, CCD is already affecting us tremendously. Some farmers, like those in the Sichuan province in China, must hand-pollinate their pear trees because of CCD. Before the bees disappeared, one hive of bees would pollinate 3 million blossoms daily. Humans can only pollinate only thirty trees per day. In addition, replacing bees with human pollinators could cost over ninety billion dollars per year.

Bee autospies show that bees have suffered from a combination of ailments like malnutrition, exposure to pesticides, viral and bacterial infections, and more. No one theory seems to completely explain their disappearance. What can we do about this? One solution is to reduce the use of pesticides. A second is to grow several different crops in one large field, but some think bees should be bred so they can become resistant to genetic diseases which may lead to CCD. We are beginning to realize just how important bees really are to humans, and unless we want to severely limit our food supply, scientists need to solve this problem. Otherwise, honey bees may become extinct in United States by 2035.





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