Addressing the Three of the Many Threats to Bee Colonies

At the instance of a stimulus such as a "creepy-crawly” feeling or sensing the flying insect may cause many people to quiver in fear. Most people are scared that a micro-sized organism will attack them. Yet, this is an erroneous assumption. While some insects may be equipped with a stinger or teeth, they will not attack human beings unless provoked. One such insect that often arouses fear in people, and is not only harmless but also aids human populations, is the bee. Bees are, in many ways, one of the most pivotal organisms that roam the earth, but are unfortunately also exponentially dwindling in numbers. Colony Collapse Disorder, which describes the crisis of the diminishing size of bee colonies, poses such a significant threat to human populations because bees are one of the most renowned pollinators. Through their pollination of crops they provide one-third of the food we eat and much of the clothes we wear (Warner, 2011). The sheer effort of the bees allows humans to live comfortably without much work needed on the part of the Agriculture Sector. According to the International Bee Research Association (2008), a bee can travel through 20,000 hectares and visit up to 5000 plants a day. Therefore, if humans do not intervene then we will surely lose the bees, which will in turn harm us. To address three of the many threats to bee colonies we must: develop vaccines to fight off the new virus plaguing bee colonies; use pesticides and fungicides that are not toxic or minimally toxic to bees; and lastly, we should revise the ways in which we use fossil fuels so that we can reduce the amount of pollutants which are released into the air.

The introduction of the new tobacco ringspot virus has contributed to the massive epidemic among bees worldwide. In fact, within the United States in particular, the mass extinction of honeybees has entailed the eradication of nearly a third of the bee colonies used for commercial purposes since 2006 (Wines, 2014). In a study mentioned in an online version of the academic journal mBio, researchers have found that "honeybee deaths [that] generally starts in  autumn and peaks in winter was correlated with increasing infections by a variant of the tobacco ringspot virus" (Wines, 2014). The new nature of this virus not only directly harms the honeybees' nervous system, but it is also spread through a perpetual cycle. Researchers were able to ascertain that the virus is found in pollen that bees easily pick up while gathering nectar, after which bees spread the virus through mediums such as honey. In addition, the food bees make for larvae can also contain the virus. Therefore, because this virus is so easily spread it will inevitably lead to the entire death of the species. Generally speaking, the tobacco ringspot virus is the first known virus to jump from pollen to bees; it is an RNA virus, which allows it to mutate rapidly and jump from one species to another. In effect if the virus is not stopped immediately, it would cost our agriculture industry approximately $15 billion annually. This is because "pollination (completed by the bees] adds about $15 billion to the crops' value each year” by speeding up the process of pollination, and contributing to more wholesome crops (Wines, 2014). Another potential ramification of not stopping the virus dead in its tracks is that entire ecosystems would be ruined: bees do not eat any insects, but they attack invasive species that ruin homeostasis in a plant or eat plants. In other words, if the bees go extinct, no species on top of the food chain would stop invasive species from ruining entire crop fields. Imagine if someone started to rifle through your fridge and eat all your food, then you (in this case you are a bee) would do anything to get the invasive species out of your home.

Luckily, there are methods to eradicate or minimize the effects of this virus. Any virus infects an organism by taking over a host cell and reproducing inside of that cell so that it can unhinge the genetic material of the host cell. Viruses behave similarly within bees. Though this may seem like a major predicament, we treat viruses everyday in the United States. For patients already inflicted with a virus doctors administer antibiotics, which works by destroying the cell wall of a virus, and thus destroying any chance for the virus to reproduce. In cases where individuals are not infected, doctors take precautionary measures by administering vaccines that elicit an immune response in humans, specifically, the production of antibodies against the virus. These antibodies prevent us from becoming susceptible to the virus throughout our lifetime. In a laboratory in the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, researchers were able to isolate some soybean strains that have immunity against tobacco ringspot virus (1993-2014). Namely, "one genotype (PI 407287) of the annual ancestor of soybean (Glycine soja) is resistant to the virus. Other resistant Pls are 92713 and 154194” (Lee, 1996). This is a significant discovery because the tobacco ringspot virus variant found on the soybean is the most detrimental, ruining 25 to 100% of crops (Lee, 1996). With some maneuvering, researchers would be able to isolate the genes in the soybean that allow for immunity against the virus. Once the hard part is done, it is only a matter of time until researchers would be able to activate the gene in bees granting them immunity against the virus. Alternatively, researchers could tackle the virus through methodology similar to coping with a virus in human beings. Scientists can introduce a vaccine for bees that will induce immunity, similar to how we receive vaccines for meningitis, chickenpox, and rubella. The vaccine will contain a dead version of the virus, thus eliciting an immune response within bees to create antibodies to fight off the threat. Since it wouldn't be practical to administer a vaccine to each bee, an alternative would be to release the vaccine as a gas so it could spread to an entire beehive in a matter of seconds.

While the tobacco ringspot virus is known to be a major problem in the southern United States, Colony Collapse Disorder is a very serious problem not only in the United States but also in Europe. The bee population plummeted to such an extent in Europe that drastic measures were taken to ban any substances that could have potentially harmed bee colonies, even if these substances had not been sufficiently researched or showed direct signs of negatively affecting bee populations (Woody, 2013). While many can only speculate what is causing the demise of the bees, scientists at the University of Maryland and the US Department of Agriculture have identified a potent duo that may have a hand in the phenomenon. The group of scientists discovered a plethora of different pesticides and fungicides that contaminate pollen which bees collect to feed their hives; in fact, Tood Woody of Quartz News described it, as a "witches brew" of substances. These pesticides are harmful because they increase the risk in bees of being infected by a parasite known as Nosema ceranae. The findings shed additional light on why a large numbers of bees are dying. Woody describes that after collecting pollen samples from a few crops on the East Coast in the United States, scientists discovered the use of 9 pesticides and 21 agricultural chemicals in these samples. What was most significant to the discovery was that Scientists identified eight ag[ricultural] chemicals associated with increased risk of infection by the parasite... Most disturbing, bees that ate pollen contaminated with fungicides were three times as likely to be infected by the parasite. In other words, of all the chemicals found, eight seemed to have increased the incidence of Nosema ceranae. This new piece of evidence is very important because now scientists have learned that Mother Nature possesses a twofold threat to the bees. The discovery is also intriguing because seemingly "harmless" chemicals have been ravaging the bee populations for many years. Bee populations have been crippled so much that in the US it now takes “60% of the country's surviving bee colonies just to pollinate one California crop, almonds” (Woody, 2013). This has a rippling effect because California supplies 80% of the world's almonds with a market share of more than $4 billion. In essence, farmers believed that they were contributing to a larger crop load with the use of pesticides and thus greater profit, but instead they are in fact ultimately prompting their own economic downfall by harming bees.

The idea that pesticides are aiding the death of bees is quite startling. While it may seem obvious that farmers should stop using harmful pesticides and fungicides, a more difficult question needs to be tackled first: how will we substitute these harmful chemicals to protect the bees without compromising the purpose of the pesticides? First off, government officials must follow the precedent set forth by Europe and ban pesticides that are detrimental to bees. Next, farmers should use pesticides and fungicides that do not have a toxic affect on bees. According to Beekeeping by Purdue University, there are approximately 68 different pesticides and fungicides that are either non-toxic or minimally toxic to bees. Some of these pesticides and fungicides may be more expensive and harder to obtain, but in the long run the new chemicals will benefit us because we will not have to worry about killing the predominant pollinators. Again if the bees go extinct, in addition to the direct impact this would have on human populations through the depletion of nutritious food, indirect effects like economic disaster as well as conditions like the dustbowl could emerge (Krupke, Hunt, & Foster, 2011). However, I concede that there will be times when we will have no option but to use potent pesticides and fungicides because if bees are not harmed by the nontoxic chemicals, other organisms will also slide under the radar. Nonetheless, we must be cautious when spreading highly toxic chemicals. I believe that one way to minimize risks of exposure to harmful pesticides for the bee populations would be by spraying the chemicals at night when bees are inactive. This serves a dual purpose because the bees are not active, but many rodents and pests are nocturnal, thus they will be scavenging for food at night. Another safe practice would be to spray the chemicals away from any body of water, or winds blowing in the direction of colorful flowers, for example; in this way the chemicals wont spread too far and fast. Lastly, I believe that bee keepers should keep their bees far away from any place in which pesticides are kept, this way bees will have a small chance of accidently running into toxic fumes.

Finally, the next greatest threat to bees aside from potent chemicals is the human race. As the dominant creature on top of the food chain, we do not realize that our actions have rippling effects that hurt many organisms around us. Pollution is something that directly hinders the pollination of bees. If bees are not able to locate plants because of the intense smell given off by hydrocarbon molecules through pollution, pollination will not take place. This would limit genetic variation of plants, and contribute to the death toll of bees because they will not be able to collect nectar and make food to survive. According to Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post, A flower's scent could travel between 3,280 feet and 4,000 feet, .... but today, that scent might travel 650 feet to 1,000 feet in highly polluted areas such as the District of Columbia, Los Angeles or Houston. (2008)

Eilperin goes on to state that this initiates a ceaseless cycle: bees can't sense the flowers on crops, will therefore die because they cannot make food, which will lead to fewer crops because bees wont be able to pollinate to their full capacity, and then the cycle will start again with fewer bees each time. Some experts predict that if we continue on the same trajectory without deviation then we can lose countless bees in the next couple of decades. This would cripple our economy and the Agriculture Sector of the United States.

While irresponsible human decisions have caused many horrific events on our earth, we have the power to change our actions, and, in this case, help save the bees. Pollution is in our direct control. Emissions from factories, cars, oil harvesting, and electricity consumption are all direct contributors to pollution. If we are able to cut back on our consumption of fossil fuels and switch to a renewable resources such as solar power, wind power, and even water power we would complete a 180 degree turn and help slow down the Colony Collapse Disorder. I am not arguing that we should become completely reliant on renewable energy overnight, but I do believe that we should gradually shift to renewable energy in order to lessen the damage we have already caused. Additionally, if we would be able to cut back on the pollutants released into the air, plants would also propagate faster, which will directly help bees recuperate their numbers. Therefore, the number of plants and flowers in the ecosystem also contribute to the dwindling size of bee colonies; this could be easily addressed by encouraging more people to plant within their communities.

Imagine a world without bees. Now imagine the barren wasteland that is mars. Its, gutwrenching to say, but a world without the top pollinators can eventually end up lifeless and empty. Bees are unsung heroes because in some way shape or form they affect all livingorganisms on earth. If we hope to last as long as our predecessors—the dinosaurs—we must address serious issues in the way we live life: we must develop a vaccine against viruses that plague bee colonies, limit the toxic pesticides and fungicides we release in an ecosystem, and limit the pollution we release into the atmosphere. If we do not address any of the three critical issues addressed above, the ramifications can be devastating. The man who discovered the theory of relativity claimed that without any bees our world would only last four years (Warner, 2011). If this man—Albert Einstein—lived his life during a time with a fraction of the technology we have now and was able to come to this conclusion, we should come to the realization that the extinction of a major species is impending. I do not request that we completely uproot our way of life just to accommodate bees; however, I assert that there exist better ways to live our lives and minimize the number of deaths experienced by bee colonies. If we do not allocate more funding for research as a society then we wont be able to develop a method to treat or administer a vaccine to terminate the tobacco ringspot virus, and we cannot continue to study the effects of particular pesticides and fungicides on the specifies. Lastly, as individuals we should put pressure on farmers to utilize more friendly chemicals on their crops, and personally reduce the amount of pollutants we contribute to our earth.

Reference List:

  • Aloria, N. (2013). Quora, Save the Bees! Retrieved April 21, 2014, from http://www.quora.com/search?q=life+without+bees
  • Eilperin, J. (2008). The Washington Post, Air Pollution Impedes Bees' Ability to Find Flowers.
  • Retrieved April 6, 2014, from http://www.washingtonpost.com/wpdyn/content/article/2008/05/04/AR2008050401737.html
  • International Bee Research Association (2008). FAQ's - International Bee Research Association. Retrieved March 23, 2014, from http://www.ibra.org.uk/categories/faq
  • Krupke, C., Hunt G., & Foster I. (2012). Purdue University PROTECTING HONEY BEES FROM PESTICIDES. Retrieved April 8, 2014, from http://extension.entm.purdue.edu/publications/E-53.pdf
  • Lee, J. M., Hartman, G. L., Domier, L. L., and Bent, A. F. (1996). Identification and map location of TTR1, a single locus in Arabidopsis thaliana that confers tolerance to Tobacco ringspot nepovirus. Retrieved March 24, 2014 from http://soydiseases.illinois.edu/index.cfm? category=publications&sortbit=disease#Tobacco%20Ringspot%20Virus
  • University of Illinois (2014). Information on Tobacco Ringspot Virus, Laboratory for Soybean Disease Research, U of I. Retrieved March 24, 2014, from http://soydiseases.illinois.edu/index.cfm?category=diseases&disease=80
  • Warner, V. (2011). Mail Online, Save the Great British Bee! Why the mysterious disappearance of billions of bees could mean us losing a third of the food we eat. Retrieved April 8, 2014, from http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1356391/The-mysteriousdisappearance-billions-bees-mean-losing-food-eat.html
  • Wines, M. (2014). The New York Times, Bee Deaths May Stem From Virus, Study Says.
  • Retrieved March 24, 2014, from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/22/us/bee-deathsmay-stem-from-virus-study-says.html?_r=1
  • Woody, T. (2013). Quartz News, Scientists discover what's killing the bees and it's worse than you thought. Retrieved April 4, 2014, from http://qz.com/107970/scientists-discoverwhats-killing-the-bees-and-its-worse-than-you-thought/