Skip to main content

What will happen if the bees disappear?

By Marla Spivak
updated 11:37 AM EDT, Sat May 17, 2014
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
updated 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT