Conservation and Biodiversity

Pollen over pesticides: How we can save honeybees

Honeybees are disappearing. In the past half century, we’ve lost 60 percent of the honeybee hives. Last winter alone, colonies shrank by more than a third. This decline can be blamed on several factors: pests, diseases, shrinking suitable habitats and pesticides.

Why should we care? Aside from their economic value, bees are vital parts of ecosystems: Without bees, food crops would wither, plants and flowers would suffer without these key pollinators and the animals that depend on these plants (including us) would be without food.

Plus, honeybees are remarkable creatures.

Honeybees: The more you know

Not every bee can be a honeybee: Honeybees are only one of about 20,000 bee species. When we think of buzzing, black and yellow honey-makers, we’re thinking of the European honeybee, or Apis mellifera. The European honeybee is the most widespread bee species and the species most commonly domesticated by beekeepers.

Perhaps our fascination with honeybees stems from their social behavior. When bees behave like humans — dancing, communicating, working together — we can relate to them. For one, bees perform something called a “waggle dance.” But this dance is less of a performance and more of a helpful tip to their other bees. The dance, which resembles a figure-eight movement, informs bees the direction and distance of food or water.

Honeybees work together in a colony to make hives that provide humans with honey and beeswax, which we then use for many products. Some beehives can hold up to 80,000 honeybees.

So, how do bees make honey? Honeybees drink nectar, which then reacts to enzymes in the bees’ stomachs, breaking the nectar down into simpler sugars. The bees return to the hive and throw this nectar up, which is eaten and thrown up by other bees in the colony. This happens repeatedly until the nectar has lost most of its water content, which is when the nectar is deposited into one of the honeycombs.

In other words, it’s a giant bee vomit mess. Or, as we like to call it, honey.

What about wax? Glands on the worker bees’ legs produce waxy flakes, which the bees moisten with their mouths to shape into honeycombs. Think of it like molding a clay sculpture.

Honey keeps the bees fed through the winter months. What we humans eat is simply the excess honey that the bees don’t need to survive.

Urge Congress to save the bees

It’s our job to stop this bee decline free fall and one way is to limit our use of toxic chemicals. With political will and coordinated efforts, we can rebound the bee population.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Congress reintroduced the Saving America’s Pollinators Act (H.R. 1337). At its heart, the bill draws attention to harmful pesticides — pesticides like sulfoxaflor, which was recently reapproved by the Environmental Protection Agency — which is good news for bees. The law would limit pesticide uses and creates an extensive review process for the pesticides that are approved. Additionally, the act allows us to learn more about the health of wild bees, a major asset to scientists and citizens wanting to save our pollinators.

Bees may be canaries in the coal mine of our larger environmental crisis, and 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.