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 8:21 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Carlos Moreno says atheists, a sizable fraction of Americans, deserve representation in Congress.
updated 12:25 PM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Democrats and unions have a long history of mutual support that's on the decline. But in a time of income inequality they need each other more than ever
updated 12:23 AM EDT, Sun August 31, 2014
William McRaven
Peter Bergen says Admiral William McRaven leaves the military with a legacy of strategic thinking about special operations
updated 12:11 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Leon Aron says the U.S. and Europe can help get Russia out of Ukraine by helping Ukraine win its just war, sharing defense technologies and intelligence
updated 1:24 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Timothy Stanley the report on widespread child abuse in a British town reveals an institutional betrayal by police, social services and politicians. Negligent officials must face justice
updated 9:06 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say a new video of an American suicide bomber shows how Turkey's militant networks are key to jihadists' movement into Syria and Iraq. Turkey must stem the flow
updated 11:54 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 10:34 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 10:43 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 9:30 AM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Fri August 29, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT