Absent bees, empty cupboards

If foods you casually pick up at the market today become rare luxuries in the future, it’ll be because many of the insects have died.

A small local apiary 521 (photo credit: Miriam Kresh)
A small local apiary 521
(photo credit: Miriam Kresh)
I once caught a honeybee that strayed into my kitchen. As I was wearing heavy rubber gloves, I simply reached up and caught it in my hand. The bee struggled to escape, writhing as muscular as a cat in my loosely closed fist. Before I could bring it to the window to let it go free, it obeyed its instinct to sting. Leaving its tiny needle embedded in my glove, it flew away to die.
Have you noticed fewer bees flying around outdoors? You might be glad to see less of the irritating insects nowadays. But if foods you casually pick up at the market today become rare luxuries in the future, it’ll be because many of the world’s bees have died. I look back at my encounter with the honeybee and think regretfully of all the flowers it might have pollinated, had it never wandered into my house.
It was a western honeybee, descended from bees that Columbus imported to the Americas. From there, the western honeybee was eventually exported all over the world. The native bee of Israel is the Syrian bee, historically found in Palestine, Syria and Jordan. It’s aggressive and able to withstand wasps, but doesn’t produce much honey. The domesticated western honeybee is the one used in agriculture. Its pollinating services are essential to our food supply, and it’s in danger of dying out – in Israel and everywhere else.
Prof. Sharoni Shafir, director of the Bee Research Center at the Hebrew University at Rehovot, explained how vitally we depend on bees for food:
“Seventy-five percent of our crops are insect pollinated. That percentage mostly depends on honeybees. About every third bite of food we put in our mouths depends on pollination,” he said.
Since the 1980s, over half of the world’s honeybees have died out. This is already affecting the amount and variety of crops grown, and it will only get worse. To illustrate, avocados at my admittedly overpriced local store cost a whopping NIS 28 per kilo last week. There are fewer avocados, and they are becoming unaffordable. I certainly didn’t buy any.
“Avocados are 100 percent dependent on bee pollination,” remarked Shafir. Extrapolate that into a future where almost all fruits, nuts and vegetables grown above ground become too expensive for the average working family.
“We can maintain a diet of grains like rice, corn and wheat, and potatoes. They are wind-pollinated, or self-pollinate. But other nutritious foods rich in minerals and vitamins, like almonds, are bee-pollinated.”
Taking up the example of almonds, Shafir continued: “Eighty percent of the world’s almonds are grown in California. There are huge areas of almond orchards there. All those trees must be honeybeepollinated. When they bloom in early spring, most American bee colonies are shipped to California for pollinating.
“Fifteen years ago, a California almond farmer would pay a beekeeper about $40 per colony for the loan of his bees. Today, it’s over $150 per colony. There used to be six million colonies in the USA. Now there are fewer than three million.
“So almonds are becoming too expensive for many people to eat. This is going to be true of many other foods, like broccoli, peaches, tomatoes. There’s going to be less food. It will be more expensive and less nutritious.”
It looks like there will be a lot of oatmeal and bread in our future – a diet much like that of the medieval Western peasant.
The gloomy forecast? Global malnutrition and new socioeconomic problems.
The US Department of Agriculture’s statistics are even more worrying. In a report published in May of this year, the USDA reports: “Since 2006, an estimated 10 million beehives worth about $200 each have been lost, costing beekeepers some $2 billion. There are now 2.5 million honeybee colonies in the US, down from six million 60 years ago… The consequences for the agricultural economy – and even for our ability to feed ourselves – could be dire. Currently, the survivorship of honeybee colonies is too low for us to be confident in our ability to meet the pollination demands of U.S. agricultural crops.”
This applies not only to the US, as bee deaths are happening in every country.
Many factors contribute to the current wave of massive bee deaths. Colony collapse disorder, a mysterious syndrome resulting in bees disappearing from hives, has received most publicity. But pesticides and fungicides kill bees as well.
“Whenever you poison the environment, bees will be poisoned too,” explained Shafir. “Some efforts were made to mitigate the effects of pesticides on bees. One was to spray at night, or to irrigate crops with pesticide-laden water. That failed because the sprayed chemicals remain on the flowers and infuse their nectar.”
Acknowledging the threat of pesticides to bees, in April of this year 15 EU countries enacted a two-year ban on certain widely used pesticides.
Bees are also dying due to starvation in a world that never stops building. “Wherever urbanization takes over open fields, flowers disappear. With the flowers, the bees disappear too,” said Shafir.
However, the main threat to bees is the varroa mite, which came from Asia in the ’80s and spread globally. Varroa either kills the bees directly by infecting them with viruses, or weakens their immune system, making them vulnerable to pesticides and malnutrition.
The good news is that Israel has developed a type of anti-varroa immunization, using a technique called RNA silencing. The technology affects only the varroa mite, not bees or humans eating honey. The commercial product is called Remebee and is produced by the Beeologics company. The less good news is that the agriculture giant Monsanto, infamous for its attempts to dominate global world agriculture via genetically-modified seeds, recently bought Beeologics.
“Maybe they’re trying to improve their public relations by doing something good for the bees,” said Shafir optimistically.
While scientists labor to protect the honeybee, some view the humble bumblebee as a backup in case of bee colony loss. In recent years, efforts have been made to raise bumblebees commercially in Holland and Israel. Mostly, they’re put to work in greenhouses, pollinating tomatoes, for example. There have also been attempts to domesticate wild bees, but without much success. Sadly, there are no feral bees left in Israel.
What can the average citizen do to promote the bees’ survival?
“Ordinary gardeners can’t do anything against the varroa mite,” noted Shafir. “But they can put pressure in the right places to stop pesticide use. Consumers should support organic agriculture. If consumers are willing to buy smaller, less gorgeous fruit, the grower can use fewer pesticides. By demanding organic produce, consumers are helping the bees.
“We should plant nectar and pollenrich plants in gardens. This was done on a national scale in Israel, with plantings of tens of thousands of flowering trees; eucalyptus is one. People should be planting flowers and herbs that attract bees, even in containers on a balcony or roof.”
Native herbs like rosemary, lavender, mint and basil attract bees. They like large clumps of flowering plants, sunny spots, and plants that flower in blue, purple, white and yellow.
Remember: The more bees visiting, the richer the garden will be through their pollination.