Conservation and Biodiversity

Bees are dying, but there is one thing we can do

More than 50 years after Rachel Carson’s haunting analysis of pesticides in “Silent Spring,” we’re still dealing with chemicals and their backlash on ecosystems. The latest perpetrator: sulfoxaflor, a bug- and weed-killer reapproved last week by the Environmental Protection Agency. The latest victim: bees.

We’re losing billions of bees each year to many complicated causes, including viruses, climate change, decreasing crop diversity and habitat loss. Amid this population plummet, however, one threat remains under our control: pesticides.

While pesticides are designed to kill pests and insects that harm crops, they also have unintended consequences. Pesticides can wipe out entire species, even ones not targeted. This includes bees, insects essential to many crop yields.

Even the EPA knows sulfoxaflor is bad for bees — their environmental impact statement admits the pesticide is “highly toxic to bees and other pollinating insects.” Still, the agency reapproved the agricultural industry’s use of sulfoxaflor, citing the “lower environmental impact” compared to other pesticides.

Though we think of bees as our favorite buzzing pollinators, they do much more than make honey and frequent flowers; losing bees can cause big problems for our ecosystem and economy.

Here’s why we should care:

As populations boom, we need more food

Bees pollinate about three-quarters of fruits, vegetables and nuts in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The U.S. is the largest food exporter in the world. Combine this with a growing global population — one expected to reach 10 billion by 2050 — and bees’ survival is essential not only for the U.S. but also for fighting world hunger. Globally, it’s estimated that bees and other pollinators affect one-third of the world’s food supply.

Don’t forget about other animals

Bees don’t only pollinate foods we eat — they also pollinate food eaten by birds and other mammals. Bees pollinate wild berries and nuts, as well as alfalfa, food eaten by domesticated livestock. Take bees out of the equation, and the effects can be felt all the way up the food chain.

The food chain’s vulnerability is more apparent when looking at certain crops: Cherries and blueberries are 90 percent dependent on honeybee pollination, and almonds are completely dependent on honeybee pollination, according to the American Beekeeping Federation.

And then there’s the economy

Bees alone contribute to $15 billion annually for the U.S. agriculture, and pollinators contribute $24 billion to the U.S. economy. Besides pollinating heavy-hitting crops like fruits, vegetables and nuts, bees pollinate crops like cotton and other foods we don’t instantly think of when we think of bees (like coffee, tea and chocolate). Entire industries produce various beeswax- and honey-based goods.

Together, bees affect multibillion-dollar industries that, if they collapse, could put tens of thousands out of work and send shockwaves through the economy.

Bees are part of nature’s delicate balance

Bees have evolved into mega-pollinators over millions of years, and plants have adapted to incorporate bees into their life cycle. If bees disappeared quickly, plants would not have time to adjust. Instead of adapting, many plant species would simply die off. And that’s not just food crops; flowers and trees need pollinators.

Bees may be the posterchildren of a larger environmental crisis, but their rapid disappearance reflects the threats many pollinators face. Though widespread loss of bees remains a mystery to scientists, one threat we can control is our use of pesticides. Urge Congress to pass the Saving America’s Pollinators Act, and sign Earth Day Network’s Pesticide Pledge to reduce the amount of pesticides that are killing pollinators.

Learn more about how you can protect bees and other species by joining Earth Day Network’s Protect Our Species campaign.