Skip to main content

What will happen if the bees disappear?

By Marla Spivak
May 17, 2014 -- Updated 1537 GMT (2337 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Marla Spivak: Honeybees, wild bees and bumblebees dying at frightening rates
  • Bees pollinate majority of our crops, she says; fewer bees will cause food supply to shrink
  • Spivak: Use of herbicides, pesticides are killing off flowering plants, poisoning bees
  • Spivak: Try not to use herbicides, insecticides; put out flowering plants

Editor's note: Marla Spivak is a distinguished McKnight professor in entomology at the University of Minnesota. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- As thoughts turn to warm weather and gardening, it's a good time to consider planting flowering trees, shrubs and other plants that are attractive to bees, butterflies and other pollinators. You can beautify your yard, diversify the landscape and feed and protect pollinators, all at the same time.

The bees need you.

Honeybee colonies are dying at frightening rates. Since 2007, an average of 30% of all colonies have died every winter in the United States. This loss is about twice as high as what U.S. beekeepers consider economically tolerable. In the winter of 2012-13, 29% of all colonies died in Canada and 20% died in Europe.

Marla Spivak
Marla Spivak

Wild bee species, particularly bumblebees, are also in peril.

Anyone who cares about the health of the planet, for now and for generations to come, needs to answer this wake-up call.

Honeybees and wild bees are the most important pollinators of many of the fruits and vegetables we eat. Of 100 crop species that provide 90% of our global food supply, 71 are bee-pollinated. The value of pollination of food crops by bees in the U.S. alone is estimated at $16 billion and insect pollinators in general contribute $29 billion to U.S. farm income.

Fewer bees lead to lower availability and potentially higher prices of fruit and vegetables. Fewer bees mean no almonds, less coffee and less alfalfa hay available to feed dairy cows.

Bees visit flowers because they need to eat. They derive all of the protein they need in their diet from floral pollen, and all of the carbohydrates they need from floral nectar. As they fly from flower to flower, collecting pollen on their fuzzy bodies to take home as food, they end up transferring pollen from one blossom to another of the same floral species, and pollination just happens.

EU bans pesticide believed to harm bees
Thousands of bees invade home

We need good, clean food, and so do our pollinators. If bees do not have enough to eat, we won't have enough to eat. Dying bees scream a message to us that they cannot survive in our current agricultural and urban environments.

Fifty years ago, bees lived healthy lives in our cities and rural areas because they had plenty of flowers to feed on, fewer insecticides contaminating their floral food and fewer exotic diseases and pests. Wild bees nested successfully in undisturbed soil and twigs. Now, bees have trouble finding pollen and nectar sources because of the extensive use of herbicides that kill off so many flowering plants among crops and in ditches, roadsides and lawns.

Flowers can be contaminated with insecticides that can kill bees directly or lead to chronic, debilitating effects on their health.

Additionally, with the increase in global trade and transportation, blood-sucking parasites, viruses and other bee pathogens have been inadvertently transmitted to bees throughout the world. These parasites and pathogens weaken bees' immune systems, making them even more susceptible to effects of poor nutrition from lack of flowers, particularly in countries with high agricultural intensity and pesticide use.

Although we know that most insecticides can kill bees when used in high enough concentrations, one class of insecticides, called the neonicotinoids, is making headlines because the active ingredients can move into the pollen and nectar of treated flowering plants. It is important to pay attention to the use of neonicotinoids in commercial farming and local gardens.

But it is equally important to pay careful attention to all classes of insecticides that are applied on, move in or drift on to flowering plants, in any landscape -- your home garden among them.

Read the label and always think twice about pesticide use: Is it really necessary for you, or for a landscaper tending your yard, to apply a particular herbicide and insecticide? Are there alternatives or times of application that would not harm bees?

It's time for all of us to act.

What can you do?The good news is that each of our individual actions, even small, can lead to positive, perhaps even large-scale, change.

We must all help diversify our farms and urban landscapes by planting flowers along crop borders, in land unprofitable for crop production, along roadsides, power line corridors and in city lawns.

What should you plant?

Go for native flowering plants from your region. Or plant clover, alfalfa or other flowering cover crops that replenish soil nutrients and prevent erosion. And then grab a chair and a sun hat and watch the bees pollinate your garden and farm, rewarding you and the world with healthy food and beautiful flowers.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2152 GMT (0552 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette notes that this fall, minority students will outnumber white students at America's public schools.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2121 GMT (0521 HKT)
Humans have driven to extinction four marine mammal species in modern times. As you read this, we are on the brink of losing the fifth, write three experts.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
It's been ten days since Michael Brown was killed, and his family is still waiting for information from investigators about what happened to their young man, writes Mel Robbins
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 1242 GMT (2042 HKT)
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
August 18, 2014 -- Updated 2006 GMT (0406 HKT)
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
ADVERTISEMENT