It is a soft summer day, the grass bed beneath you lifts you up higher to meet the clouds above, which are ballooning by lazily. As you look to your right, you notice a delicate, lavender, bundle of petals sitting right over the bridge of your nose, just as a similarly delicate, black and yellow insect lights upon it. The winged pilot rubs her filamented landing gear across the center of the clover flower, and departs just as quickly as she arrived.
The miracle you just experienced was one step in the pollination process, and the honey bee equipped with its bristly appendages is perfectly equipped to aid flowers in this process. However, pollination is not a one way street. The bee is not spreading pollen far and wide to write off flower charity for its taxes. Instead, this mutualistic relationship benefits the bee as well. As payment for the bee aiding in the flower’s fecundity, the flower allows the bee to pick up some nectar.
Upon leaving its work station, the female forager bee must find her way back to her hive by navigating by the position of the sun in the sky. She daintily lifts off the flower and begins on her journey. However, her bodily functions are beginning to fail her. She no longer knows exactly where to go, because the immensity of the earth is too much for her to navigate now that her internal compass has begun to lose its orientation. Also, her left wing is no longer as strong as it was. Every minute, or 15,000 beats, her wing becomes increasingly useless. This was not a gradual process; her wing has been deformed since birth, but it has become increasingly debilitated. Eventually, the whirling world which she once helped make beautiful through spreading the colors of spring, proved much too big for her in such a handicapped state.
This is the depressing fate of thousands of bees each year. These strange disappearances, also known as colony collapse disorder, have been puzzling scientist and beekeepers for years. While many experts in the field of beekeeping have their theories, no definitive conclusion has been drawn as to why bee fatalities are now pushing forty to fifty percent each year, opposed to the previous annual fatality rate of ten percent.
According to Fred Hollan of Valley Bee Supply, the two main contributors to bee fatality are pesticides and a mite called a varroa. When applied according to manufacturer directions, pesticides are rarely a problem for bees. However, when applied to flowering plants during pollination periods, or when applied too heavily, the pesticides act in the exact manner they were designed to: to kill insects. These pesticides have actually been banned in several European countries, but are still readily available in the United States. Since these products are still available, their users must act responsibly when applying them. This means only applying chemicals to plants that are not flowering, and not over applying the chemicals, which would simply be a waste of money as well as cause unnecessary environmental harm.
The other likely cause of colony collapse disorder is a mite known as a varroa. As described by Hollan, varroa are extremely small, and look like a tick about the size of a pinhead. However small they be, these insects do not share the same symbiotic relationship as bees and flowers. Instead, varroa are parasites, because they suck blood from the pupae and adult bees, as well as introduce them to infection. Varroa also cause the body parts of bees to be deformed and nonfunctional, reducing the life expectancy of the host. Even though countless hours of research has been conducted on bees affected by colony collapse disorder, countless pollinators are lost each year.
The bee in the opening paragraph was used to describe the effects of colony collapse disorder. The progressively nonfunctional wing and overall weakness of the bee was likely caused by a varroa mite, which could have been feeding on it at birth causing the wing deformity; or the parasite could have attacked to the bee as an adult, draining the pollinator of it’s life force. On the other hand, the bee losing it’s sense of direction was likely caused by exposure to a plant treated with pesticide.
Loss of life is not at all unnatural, but is required. However, humans must be careful of their impact on the sensitive life forms they come in contact with. Be it spreading varroa mites from colony to colony, or knowingly applying pesticide to flowering plants, the intentional destruction of a species, especially a species as critical to natural environmental sustainability as the honey bee, is senseless. We can all apply this thought process to our personal lives. No matter the medium, certain substances, even when applied to the most harmless host, can cause serious pain and loss. No responsibility can be taken too lightly, especially when a prize as sweet as honey is at risk.
Special thanks to Fred Hollan of Valley Bee Supply for his knowledge and time spent educating others about bees.
Story by Jacob Lam