The more we learn about bees, the more we appreciate them
The Buzzing You Don’t Hear
If you could hear the buzzing of all the bees in the world, you would hear less of it now than you would have a few years ago. The reason is simple: There are far fewer bees to do the buzzing.
Bees have been dying off at a shocking rate — the six million bee colonies in the US in 1947 were down to 2.5 million in 2007 and still falling. In the winter of 2018–19, about 40 percent of the country’s honeybees died.
But what caused it is a mystery. For no apparent reason, the worker bees, who keep the colony going, just got up and went. They just disappeared without a trace.
Why Bees Are Disappearing
The first step in solving the mystery was to give it a name, of course. Scientists called it Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), because whole colonies (each with thousands of bees) were collapsing all at once. The worker bees were abandoning the hive, leaving behind the queen, the brood, and some nurse bees to care for the baby bees. Without the worker bees though, the remaining bees would die.
Now that they had an official name, they could begin to study it. After about 15 years of research, scientists think they have the answers.
They blame it on several things: pesticides, parasites, fungus, and lack of flowers.
Marla Spivak, a leading melittologist (bee expert) points out that the problem wasn’t noticed until 2006, but it actually began around 1945. Why then? Because that’s when farming changed in America. Farmers began using pesticides to kill harmful insects. They also started planting vast fields of single crops (all soybeans, or all corn, for example) which deprived the bees of the flowering plants they need to do their work. No flowers, no bees.
That’s why beehives are carried by truck all over the country. For example, 30 billion bees, about 15 million to a truck (give or take), are brought to California for the humongous almond crop that supplies 80 percent of the world’s almonds.
Bees aren’t cute, like pandas or dolphins. We’re talking about bugs here. And bugs that sting. Why does it matter if we have fewer bees?
You might say (as Hashem told Bilaam when he asked permission to bless the Jews instead of cursing them): “They do not need your blessing, for they are already blessed.” Rashi comments: “We want neither your honey nor your sting.”
But even though one rogue bee might someday sting you, bees in general aren’t bad. They’re really very good. And it’s not just their honey we want (most bees don’t make honey). The stuff they do around the flowering plants is essential for food production. About one-third of the world’s food depends on the pollination process (transferring pollen from plant to plant) that bees provide.
That’s why the New York Times has called CCD one of “the major stories that shaped the world” in recent years.
What’s Bee-ing Done?
So we don’t want bees to buzz off. But what can be done to save them?
Actually, a lot.
First, the US Department of Agriculture is counting bees, a kind of census to find out how many there are and how they’re doing. The more we know about them, the more we can help them.
Some farmers have tried doing pollination by hand, using paintbrushes. That’s worked better than drones, but it’s a lot of work. You have to be busy as a bee to pollinate a whole field.
Eijiro Miyako, a chemist at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan, is experimenting with bubbles.
In a moment of discovery that recalls Isaac Newton understanding gravity when he saw an apple fall from a tree, Miyako told the BBC: “I was… [blowing] bubbles with my son at a park close to my home, when a bubble accidently hit my son’s face. There was no damage because soap bubbles are soft, light, and flexible.” Then he made a connection nobody else did — bees.
When Miyako found that soap bubbles fired from a bubble gun had just the right gentleness to deliver pollen to flowers, “I jumped for joy,” he said. It’s still too soon, though, to know whether Miyako’s method will work on a large scale, or if it will pop in the air and disappear like a bubble.
In the meantime, Spivak is for flower power. She says that one way to bring bees back to life is to plant lots of flowers. And it doesn’t much matter where — in fields, yards, roadsides.
But that doesn’t let farmers off the hook. Spivak advises planting more varieties of crops that bees can live with, and then we won’t have to rely on trucking them across the country.
Giant Bees, Waggle Dances, and Bee Vaccines
Beyond CCD, scientists continue to study these amazing creatures. Some recent bee related discoveries:
Bees come in different sizes, from the size of a grain of rice to the size of a human thumb. The biggest of all, “Wallace’s giant bee,” named after British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace who discovered it in 1858, disappeared for many years, and scientists were afraid it was extinct.
But Wallace’s Giant Bee was found again in 2018 on a tropical forest island in Indonesia. It was an exciting moment for photographer Clay Bolt: “To actually see how beautiful and big the species is in life, to hear the sound of its giant wings thrumming as it flew past my head, was just incredible,” he said.
Austrian zoologist Karl von Frisch won a Nobel Prize in 1973 for discovering the meaning of the waggle dances of bees. The waggle tells other bees where to find food — how far away (by how long it dances), and in which direction (the angle of the dance).
In 2019, Virginia Tech researchers Margaret Couvillon and Roger Schürch took it a step (or waggle) further, actually decoding the bees’ specific messages. They studied videotapes of the bees in action, fed the data into a computer, and were able to identify how bees communicate the location of food.
Eventually, the process will be speeded up so that scientists can decode the dance in real time. This could offer surprising advantages. For example, “if you want to build a mall, we would know if [bee] habitats would be destroyed. And, where bees go for food, other species do as well. Conservation efforts can follow,” say Couvillon and Schürch.
Researchers have discovered that honeybees can get hive immunity by transferring genetic material called RNA bee-to-bee. Dr Eyal Maori of the University of Cambridge thinks the process could be used to create a vaccine to protect bees against the deadly Varroa mite, one of the culprits in CCD.
“It is possible that this honeybee protein may even have applications, too, for new vaccines and medicines for humans,” Maori told Science Daily.
The more we learn about bees, the more we appreciate them. And wish them a mighty comeback.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 828)
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