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Uh-huh honey

Where have all the bees gone?

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Like many kids, I grew up terrified of bugs. I will still attest that I am the kind of person to squish a bug instead of let it outside — feel free to judge me.

When I was still quite young, my dad decided to do a sort of exposure therapy and get a beehive and I became his assistant beekeeper. We once removed a wasp nest from my mother’s house and I felt like a badass. I found them to be incredibly sweet creatures who are only concerned about the health of their own hive. I only got stung once in about seven years of working with bees.

As the years went on, the health of bees around the country deteriorated, reaching an all-time low around 2007. Most have heard the slogan, “save the bees,” and the flashy news that surrounded it. By 2007, more than a quarter of the 2.4 million bee colonies in the United States were dead.

So why was this happening, and where are the bees now, one decade after concerns over their livelihood first arose?

Let’s start with the basic functioning of a beehive. At the center of the hive is the queen bee. She is larger than the others and is the heart of the hive because she is the only one who can lay fertilized eggs, and is the one who mates with male bees. Without the queen, a hive will collapse rapidly.

Surrounding her are the female worker bees. They hold all other responsibilities, such as gathering pollen and building the honeycomb that eggs are laid in. Worker bees are sterile, highlighting the colony’s reliance on the queen. 

Male bees in the hive, called drones, serve only as mates to the queen. Following the mating, drones immediately die. In the winter, they are kicked out of the hive as no mating is happening and they have nothing else to contribute.

When falling bee populations were first noticed, the cause was a mystery. Concern grew, as without bees, crops can’t be properly pollinated. U.S. crops pollinated by bees in 2000 were valued at $14.6 billion, demonstrating the extent we rely on bees.

“The syndrome is mysterious in that the main symptom is simply a low number of adult bees in the hive,” according to an article in the U.S. National Library of Medicine. “There are no bodies, and although there are often many disease organisms present, no outward signs of disease, pests, or parasites exist.”

An estimated 10% of them die each year under regular conditions. However, in 2006 and 2007, colony deaths were heavy and widespread from Hawaii to Europe. It took researchers some time to identify what was happening, a term called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

CCD is identifiable by a low number of worker bees in the colony. While hives can be affected by disease organisms, this does not regularly cause such an enormous absence of worker bees. Usually, the only things that are left behind are the queen, a large store of food, a few worker bees to care for the queen, and immature bees. 

We don’t know where the missing bees went, or what happened to them. Climate change has been suggested as a cause due to the changing weather’s significant effects on honey and pollen stores, which increases stress on bees. This is not, however, the cause of CCD. Proposed causes, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), include exposure to pesticides, changes to the habitat of bees, poor nutrition, and the “stress bees experience due to management practices such as transportation to multiple locations across the country for providing pollination services.”

Fortunately, the peak of CCD has passed and bee populations are starting to bounce back. At the start of 2017, the number of hives lost was 84,430. While this number is high, it is actually 27% lower than in 2016. The EPA has been reviewing the effects of pesticides and other chemicals sprayed on crops while organizations across the country continue efforts to help hives to thrive.

I personally have a tattoo of a honey bee as a reminder of the importance of these sweet, fuzzy creatures to myself, and to our society as well. These crucially important beings are making a comeback, and we need continue to pay attention to and support them.

Reach writer Grace Harmon at Twitter: @grace_viv

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