Bees Are Essential For Our Food Supply Yet Their Population Declines

Three out of four crops utilized for people to eat rely upon pollinators according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

Katherine Manning is a graduate student studying insect diversity at Kent State University. She specifies that pollinators include animals such as birds, butterflies, bats, moths, and bees. Bees are especially important in pollinating crops.

Graduate student Katherine Manning headshot.
Katherine Manning headshot provided by Katherine Manning

There are over 4,000 species of bees in North America, Manning said. Bees native to North America tend to be solitary whereas bees used for commercial purposes like honey bees are social animals that originate from Europe. Honey bees are brought in by people as supplementary pollinators for agriculture while native bees may happen to be near crops to help pollinate.

Pollination occurs when pollen is transferred from the male parts to the female parts of the flower, Manning said. When a pollinator like a bee feeds on the nectar in a flower, the pollen sticks to dense patches of hair on their bodies. Therefore, when the bee moves to a different flower, pollen transfers and reproduction occurs.

Dwight Wells is a director at the Ohio State Beekeepers Association for the Top of Ohio region with over 50 years of experience in beekeeping. He states that almost all fruits and vegetables, as well as hay crops that are used to support the dairy industry, are pollinated by honey bees.

Ohio beekeeper Dwight Wells headshot
Dwight Wells headshot provided by Dwight Wells

“[Without honey bees] we would be eating bread [and] potatoes, just like a lot of our forefathers did way back when,” Wells said. “When we didn’t have that many honey bees in North America.”

Ohio’s major crops like corn and soybeans do not need pollinators to survive but bees can help enlarge their yields, Wells said.

“If they are visited by pollinators, it increases their yield by 15 to 18 bushels per acre, which is a lot,” Wells said. “That’s a lot of money and the farmers are starting to understand that.”

Yet, even though bees play a vital role in the food supply, they face many obstacles that lead to a declining population. Honey bees and native bees have different problems.

The EPA implemented policies to protect pollinators from pesticides and certain insecticides but these are a minor issue for honey bees, Wells said. The major complications honey bees face consist of the varroa mite, poor nutrition and improper beekeeping.

The varroa mite is a parasite that came to Ohio from Europe in 1987, he said. The mite bites the honey bee and feeds on its body fat which gives the bee viruses. One of the most notable diseases is the deformed wing virus, which not only impairs their wings but makes them sick.

Meanwhile, poor nutrition comes from a lack of pollinator flowers, Wells said. Commonly removed plants from lawns such as dandelions and white clover provide suitable nutrition so honey bees can be healthy. When bees are malnourished they are smaller with shorter lifespans.

Poor nutrition also impacts drones, he said. Drones are male bees that have the sole purpose of mating with the queen. Inadequate feeding when drones are in the larva stage can cause their sperm to be unhealthy because it was not produced correctly.

The impacts of improper feeding can also happen to the queen, he said. This is especially concerning because the queen is the only female bee that lays fertilized eggs.

“Just equate it to somebody, some baby that hasn’t been fed properly, all the way from the start until they get up to be into puberty,” Wells said. “That time is critical for [a] healthy, good balanced diet because that affects them the rest of their life.”

However, one of the largest dilemmas bees encounter is incorrect beekeeping training, Wells said. New beekeepers often lack the appropriate education to adequately take care of bees.

“We typically have about 1000 new beekeepers every year, coming into beekeeping,” Wells said. “And we have about 1000 beekeepers quitting beekeeping after about three years because they can’t keep their bees alive.”

Dwight Wells

On the other hand, some native bee species face a greater threat of serious population decline than honey bees, Manning said. For example, scientists know how much pesticide is lethal for a honey bee but not for many native bees.

Bee conservation tends to focus on honey bees while some native bees like the rusty patched bumble bee and many species in the yellow faced bee genus are considered endangered.

“A lot of people want to save the bees by saving the honey bees which is like saving the birds by keeping chickens,” Manning said.

Katherine Manning

Yet, changes in human behavior can help protect both commercial bees and native bees.

People allowing weeds such as dandelions and white clover to grow in their lawns gives bees better nutrition, Wells said. Also, allocating land for prairies can benefit bees and other pollinators.

Huffman Prairie in Dayton, Ohio has acres of pollinator flowers such as wingstem, he said. Bees pollinate these flowers and create a positive feedback loop.

“What happens is, after two or three years if you pollinate native pollinator flowers, they produce more seed,” Wells said. “More seed, more plants, more plants, more seed [and] it grows.”

Other pollinators such as native bees, hummingbirds, and monarch butterflies visit the prairie because of the extra plants. The more pollinators in the area allows for more flowers which continues the cycle.

Yet, the most essential way to protect bees is through education on why they are important to the environment and agriculture, Wells said.

“Most people don’t understand that their food supply is controlled by pollinators,” Wells said. “They just go to the grocery store and get their food.”

The Portage County Beekeepers is an association that works to provide education on beekeeping and assist beginners. Sophia Wood works as the secretary of this organization and engages in beekeeping as a hobby.

Secretary of the Portage County Beekeepers, Sophia Wood headshot.
Sophia Wood headshot provided by Madisyn Woodring

The Portage County Beekeepers hosted a native plant sale recently, Wood said. The group encouraged buyers to plant them in their backyard to assist bees.

Growing native plants and setting up a water source for bees is a way for regular people to support bees, Wood said.

Overall, bees and beekeeping are valuable in Portage County because of local agriculture, Wood said.

“The bees, they make all the food and basically, they help to produce majority of it and they make it more nutritious and better for us,” Wood said. “And, and just generally bees are the reason that like the population is thriving and advancing.”

Sophia Wood