Enjoy your holiday meal this year, because cranberries, almonds, apples, pumpkins, and berries will soon face a price hike. These are pollinator-dependent crops, and bees—one of the most efficient pollinators out there—are rapidly declining in numbers.
According to a report from the National Academy of Sciences, between 2008 and 2013, wild bee abundance declined across 23 percent of the United States. Honeybees, which are hired in hives to pollinate farmlands, are also facing colony collapse disorder, which happens when a significant amount of worker bees leave behind a queen.
"It's a really scary situation because these species are critical to important crops," Tiffany Finck-Haynes, food futures campaigner at Friends of the Earth, an environmental organization, says. "Between $235 billion and $577 billion worth of annual global food production relies on direct contributions by pollinators. Unfortunately, 40 percent of invertebrate pollinator species—particularly bees and butterflies—are facing extinction." Out of roughly 100 crop species which provide 90 percent of food worldwide, 71 of these are bee-pollinated.
Since 2006, there have been significant losses of honey bees from colony collapse disorder. From 2007 to 2013, 10 million beehives were wiped out from this phenomenon.
Experts say that the use of pesticides and loss of natural habitats is causing the dramatic decline of both honey bees and wild bee populations.
"A lot of our agricultural system has transitioned into large-scale monoculture farms and our pollinators are not getting diverse sources of pollen and nectar," Finck-Haynes says.
According to Harvard professor Chensheng "Alex" Lu, who has conducted intensive studies on honey bee populations, pesticide-use is directly correlated to colony collapse disorder. He blames the collapse on two widely used neonicotinoids—a class of insecticide that is used widely on crops.
"At the beginning when we discovered this problem, it became really controversial because it's related to pesticides," he says. "If you look at countries like the United States and Canada, who are still using these pesticides, the decline of bees is ongoing. In the European Union, two years ago they decided to ban neonicotinoids. Their bee populations have started to increase."
Commercial beekeeper Jeff Anderson, who has been in the business since 1976, says that he has stopped pollinating multi-crops because he can no longer meet his quota. He used to divide up his hives between almond, cherry, and apple farms in Minnesota and California. Lately, he has only been doing almonds.
"The pesticides have suppressed the ability for the hives to grow," he says.
Anderson says he suffered a loss of 15 to 20 percent loss in bees because of pesticides and has been forced to drive up his prices.
For Californian farmer Joe Del Bosque, the high demand for bees has risen up his beehive rental costs nearly 800 percent in the last two decades. Del Bosque, however, does not believe that pesticides are the reason for increased prices.
"When we spray a field that we have bees on, it's in my best interest to make sure the bees are OK," he says. "Over the years, pesticides have evolved and they have become more focused and more specific to the pest."
Instead, he puts the blame on the varroa mite, which he says is the primary cause of the bee problem.
"It blocks the breathing of the bees and it's almost becomes like a dead ticket on their throat," he says.
But according to Anderson, that argument is a red herring. The proliferation of mites, he says, are a symptom of pesticides.
"The pesticides that are utilized in California on almonds and some of the insecticides that they spray in Minnesota and the systematic insecticide that they use on seed coating causes the mites to go into hyper-laying mode," he says. "So pesticide exposure actually causes the mite population to explode."
While the reason behind colony collapse disorder is still controversial, it's well agreed upon that consumers will be the ones who will have to pay up. Rising beehive prices means that pollinator-dependent foods will be facing an imminent price increase.
"Hives used to be $35 a pop and now they're $175 to $200," Mace Vaughn, pollinator program co-director at the Xerces Society, a non-profit conservation organization, says. "Cranberries, cherries, apples, blueberries, strawberries, squash, and pumpkins are all crops that are being affected. They will continue to get more and more expensive, which will make Christmas dinner more expensive."
"If you take a look at your Christmas dinner table and pinpoint all the pollinator-dependent foods, almost everything disappears," Anderson says. "Even beef disappears because we feed our cows alfalfa, which requires pollination. If we lose our pollinators we don't just lose our nuts and fruits and veggies, we lose everything."
Yet Anderson says he's optimistic for the future.
"I don't think all bees will go extinct, but I do think that we will continue to see the loss of a tremendous number of species," he says. "The thing is that, unlike tigers or polar bears, helping bees is something that everybody can get involved with. You can put a little bit of native habitat in your front and back yard to attract the pollinators."
Buying from organic is another solution. Studies have shown that organic agriculture can support up to 50 percent more pollinator species than conventional agriculture.
"Whether we like it or not, pretty much everything is decided on a financial basis. The chemical industry is making big bucks off of farmers via the pesticides," Anderson says. "What it's going to take to change this is people voting with their checkbooks."