Bee population decline means less staple food available
Published: Tuesday, September 10, 2013
Updated: Tuesday, September 10, 2013 17:09
Almonds, blueberries, apples. All of these are staple foods in typical diets, but soon there may be a shortage of these commonplace foods, thanks to the decreasing populations of honeybees both internationally and in the Delaware area.
Deborah Delaney, entomology and wildlife ecology professor, said there has been an approximate 30 percent decrease in the honeybee population in the last three years, although she said it is difficult to pinpoint an exact trend in population rates, as the numbers vary among different beekeepers and their respective apiaries.
Delaney said she has been studying the evolutionary biology and population genetics of honey bees and has researched ways to improve the health of honey bee colonies.
“Our focus is not necessarily trying to figure out why colonies are dying, but instead to examine why the healthy colonies are living,” Delaney said.
The honey bee decline is caused by several factors, including pesticides, sublethal exposure to chemicals, pathogens and parasites, poor nutrition and environmental stressors among other issues, Delaney said.
As part of her senior thesis research, Angela Carcione, entomology and wildlife conservation major, said she has been working closely with Delaney to research sustainable management strategies to improve the health of honey bee colonies and help them to survive.
“It’s sad that many people fail to recognize the importance and impact that these populations have on our daily lives,” Carcione said. “My goal is to spread awareness to the public through outreach efforts, as well as to contribute to the scientific body of knowledge about honey bees.”
The cause of a colony collapse is a multifaceted topic, but beekeepers have several mitigation strategies to choose from to combat the decline, Carcione said. While some opt to alter the spatial arrangement of hives, others focus on mite control or abstaining from chemical treatments, she said.
A major part of Delaney and Carcione’s research has focused primarily on intra-colonial genetic diversity, they said. By selecting certain traits of bees and breeding them together to produce a superior bee population, there is a genetic loss of variability in bee populations, thus making these bees more susceptible to external threats, Carcione said.
One such external threat includes the Varroa mite, a parasite that has had a debilitating effect on honey bee populations. Don Coats, a volunteer at the Delaware Nature Society and veterinarian at Centreville Veterinary Hospital, said he believes the Varroa mite has played a large role in killing honeybee colonies and the toxic effects of these pests is only further augmented when plant poisons, such as pesticides, are added into the mix.
“The combination of Varroa mites and pesticides, such as neonicotinoids, has really had a deadly impact on the bee population,” Coats said. “If we reexamine the benefit-risk relationship of what we’re losing by spraying these pesticides, then perhaps we might start to take more steps towards preserving bee populations.”
Coats, who said he has been a beekeeper for the past five years, has previously conducting honey bee research at Coverdale Farm, a non-profit education farm and branch of the Delaware Nature Society. Increased public awareness and pressure to restrict the use of insecticides would also be beneficial in slowing the decline of the honeybee population, Coats said.
Junior Miranda Reinson, a wildlife conservation major, said mitigation of the collapse in the honey bee population is essential for several reasons. Reinson, who has taken a course on apiology, said bee populations are extremely important for both the human population and the environment as a whole.
“Honeybees are major pollinators, and without them, humans would lose access to some of their favorite foods, as there are different types of bees that can only pollinate certain crops,” Reinson said.