All opinions reflected in this blog post are those of the author and not of the scientists and authors of the articles presented.
The Washington Post recently published an article discussing how the addition of Hawaiin native bees to the endangered species list does not necessarily imply that honey bees and thousands of other native bee species are also at risk of extinction. With a title as strong as "Believe it or not, the bees are doing just fine," I could have easily walked away from reading the Washington Post article feeling optimistic about the future of bees. Christopher Ingraham, the author of the article, addressed some of the difficulties faced by beekeepers including prohibitive cost and time investment of hive maintenance. He mentioned that although some honey bee hives have beekeepers to take care of them when faced with diseases or other problems, native bee populations do not. These problems indicate that perhaps the bees--and the people who rely on them for their livelihood or food production-- are not doing just fine. The title does not accurately reflect the state of bees, both managed and wild. Many scientists are working on understanding and mitigating problems facing bees, and I want to highlight a recent study from North Carolina about honey bees.
There is mounting evidence indicating native and honey bees (both wild and managed) are declining in abundance for a variety of reasons, including disease and pesticides. Understanding diseases prevalence for bees that live in colonies is especially critical, because it is quite easy to spread disease when there are a lot of bees living in one place, similar to the flu spreading through a college dormitory. Two detrimental pathogens, the parasitic mite (Varroa destructor) and fungal parasite (Nosema ceranae) can cause deformed wing development and gut problems, respectively, which makes it very difficult for honey bees to forage for food and hives to survive. These pathogens, among many others, are why scientists and beekeepers alike looking for effective management and mitigation strategies.
A research group from North Carolina State University led by Dr. Elsa Youngsteadt and Holden Appler wanted to know if urbanization (habitat fragmentation, urban warming, pollution) influences how honey bees tolerate pathogens such as fungal parasites, viruses, and a bacterium. To test this, they measured immune responses of city and rural honey bees (managed and wild) and the survival of worker bees when faced with stress and when healthy. They found a greater prevalence of certain viruses and mites on managed honey bees and honey bees living in the city. In addition to the presence of more diseases, managed honeybees showed a lower ability to fight off the pathogens relative to wild honey bees.
Although this is a single study conducted in North Carolina, the implications of these results are far reaching. Many cities across the US are fortunate to have managed honey bee hives for urban garden and farm pollination. From this study and others, the plight of the bees and the beekeepers is something to think about. Although there were only a few native bee species added to the endangered species list, keep in mind that even managed honey bees face a lot of hardships as a result of human activities.
Washington Post article about the state of bees:
NPR article about addition of Hawiian bee species to endangered species list:
Research article about pathogen load on honey bees in urban ares:
Youngsteadt, E., Appler, R. H., López-Uribe, M. M., Tarpy, D. R., & Frank, S. D. (2015). Urbanization increases pathogen pressure on feral and managed honey bees. PloS one, 10(11), e0142031.