Over recent years, demoralized and confused scientists have watched helplessly as bee populations around the world have fallen. The bad news continues to roll in, unfortunately—and it isn't just the bees that are dying.
A new report from the United Nations warns that invertebrate pollinators like butterflies, moths, and beetles are approaching extinction at alarming rates, along with pollinator birds and bats.
"We are in a period of decline and there are going to be increasing consequences," said Simon Pots, director of the Centre for Agri-Environmental Research at the University of Reading (UK) and the lead author of the report. "Without pollinators, many of us would no longer be able to enjoy coffee, chocolate and apples, among many other foods that are part of our daily lives."
If you like food, you should care that 40 percent of species of bees and invertebrate pollinators are facing extinction, along with 16 percent of pollinators with backbones, like hummingbirds. These pollinators play a crucial role in agriculture, helping plants to reproduce flowers and fruits, and are responsible for 35 percent of crops around the globe, which have a value of a staggering US$577 billion. Ninety percent of wild flowering pants depend on animal pollination. Bee extinction, scientists warn, could lead to a global food shortage crisis.
"Everything falls apart if you take pollinators out of the game," Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a University of Maryland bee expert, told the Associated Press. "If we want to say we can feed the world in 2050, pollinators are going to be part of that."
Here at home, bees have been dying off in the United States at a rate of up to 30 percent a year due to hive failure. In colony collapse disorder (CCD), workers simply head out to go about their business and never return to their hive, leaving behind a doomed queen. Researchers at the University of Reading and the University of Southampton (UK) previously found that diesel fumes may be partly responsible, as the fuel can confuse bees' sense of smell.
But pollinator decline has been vexing scientists for some time. The new study points to a cocktail of contributing factors, including pesticide use, habitat loss and lack of plant diversity, disease, parasites, and global warming.
The inability to identify specific causes for population collapse hinders the ability to tackle the problem. For example, the report said that commonly used neonicotinoid insecticides hurt wild bees' chances of reproduction, but insecticide producers say the problem is more complicated than that.
"The report confirms the overwhelming majority of the scientific opinion regarding pollinator health," Christian Maus, the global pollinator safety manager for Bayer, a manufacturer of neonicotinoids, told the Associated Press. "That this is a complex issue affected by many factors. Protecting pollinators and providing a growing population with safe, abundant food will require collaboration."
There are numerous issues to address, some of which challenge the very tenets of modern agriculture. Big Ag's single-crop focus, where corn and soy stretch for miles, prevents the opportunistic growth of wildflowers and other plants, which hurts bees, too.
The massive, two-year report reflects a growing sense of urgency. Last year, the Obama administration specifically targeted the pollinator problem and created a task force to help the honeybee and other pollinators.
But there are some small glimmers of hope. Thanks in part to people taking up beekeeping, the number of managed beehives in the United States has risen to 2.7 million from its nadir in 2012, when hives numbered 2.2 million. Globally, the number of managed hives is up, too.
The problem, though, is much farther-reaching than managed honeybees. More than ever, if a bee is bothering you, don't swat it away. That bee—and all the other pollinating birds and beetles and bats and moths—is your friend.