March 27 Good Science News #11. The buzz is back!
Consider the honeybee. The honeybee's lifestyle, as we all know, has been co-opted to perform for the gustatory pleasure of humans. While the little insect doesn’t know, or care, what we do with the fruit of its labor, the fact remains that humans have screwed around with its sweet product for centuries, adulterating it with glucose syrup and other forms of cheap sweetener.
Honey, however, is not the sole ecosystem service that these animals perform, for us, nor is it the most important. Their true value lies in the job they perform as plant pollinators. While many grains (wheat, corn, rice) are wind pollinated, fully one third of the human food supply, the fruits and vegetables that we consume, are pollinated by animals, and 90% of that pollination (at least the commercial form of it) is accomplished by honeybees.
Despite their importance, honeybees have been under assault. Since the turn of the century there have been dramatic losses of honeybee colonies worldwide. Interestingly, China has been one of the exceptions to this rule, as the number of hives there has continued to grow year in and year out. The decline has been linked to colony collapse disorder (CCD), an abnormal phenomenon that occurs when a majority of worker bees in a hive disappear, leaving behind a queen, plenty of food, and a few nurse bees to care for the immature bees. Whether the results of CCD were from pesticides, parasitic mite infections, infectious diseases, or winter starvation, bees, one of our hardest working animal allies, were disappearing. But here is where the good news kicks in.
As of last year, it has been reported that honeybees are making a comeback. In some states, Maine for example, colony number have jumped markedly, a 70% increase since 2018. In fact, over 420,000 new colonies have been added to the U.S. bee battalion since the first half of 2020. It has been suggested the bees are benefiting from the reduction of human pollution during the Covid-19 era. Carbon dioxide emissions are down by 25% in China, and highly publicized photos have illustrated that the prevalent smog associated with many cities, has been temporarily lifted. World wide the veil of smog has lifted and the bees are, apparently, grateful.
Fewer cars on the roads have also led to fewer bee-car incidents, accidents in which the bee, always, gets the worse of the interaction. While this may seem trivial, it has been estimated that 24 billion bees and wasps are killed annually by vehicles in the United Stated alone. With a reduction in traffic during the Covid era, the number of bees killed annually has declined proportionally.
The remarkable turnaround of the U.S. bee community is one of the great success stories of the Covid era. Whether the bees will continue to prosper post-Covid, remains to be seen, but until then, the buzz is back!