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The Mystery of the Disappearing Bees

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About a decade ago, people started noticing that bee hives were empty and bees were missing. Large numbers of bees across North America started dying, leaving their usually busy and buzzing hives unoccupied. The problem persisted, so farmers and scientists took notice. According to the  Department of Agriculture, in October 2006 beekeepers began reporting losses of 30-90 percent of their hives.

photo of young beekeeper

Colony Collapse Disorder: A global crisis

The United Nations even declared that the bees’ disappearance was global crisis, affecting places like China, Japan and Africa, too. The bees’ disappearance was given a name: Colony Collapse Disorder, and scientists set out to solve this very serious ecological mystery.

Why are bees important?

Bees, whether wild or raised by beekeepers, are essential members of the ecosystem. Without bees, there would be problems for growing flowers or fruit or vegetables, since bees have a very important job in this process.

Crops rely on bees to pollinate them, which means that bees carry a material from a plant called pollen to other plants, which fertilizes them and allows them to grow flowers or fruit or vegetables. Other animals like butterflies, birds and even bats can be pollinators, too, delivering pollen to plants. Pollen particles cling to the legs or antenna of these animals and are transferred when they land on other plants.

Renting bees for pollination

Bees are actually so important to growing crops, that beekeepers rent their bees to farmers and growers so there are plenty of bees to move the pollen between plants. Bees pollinate over one hundred different crops, including almonds, blueberries, broccoli, celery and onions.

Farmers would prefer that there were many bees in the wild that could pollinate their plants instead of having to pay for pollination using rented bees. If bees are scarce in an area, they need to be transported to farms by beekeepers in trucks to where there are not enough wild bees to get the pollination job done. So far, there has not been an interruption to pollination, as enough healthy wild and farmed bees were available to do their part in growing crops.

What is causing Colony Collapse Disorder?

Scientists have not been sure about what is causing this problem. Many theories have been proposed.

Scientists have explored the bees' environments and considered what has changed to cause the problem now. Some scientists suggested that the bees might be reacting to temperature changes caused by global warming. Other scientists wondered if the bees had too little food to survive, if they might have a virus or if they were attacked by parasites (other organisms that would steal nutrients from the bees).

Human impact

Some scientists focused on how humans changed the bees’ environment, proposing that signals created by cell phones might be harmful to bees. Others looked at the use of pesticides and insecticides, or chemicals used on plants to repel or kill certain insects, as the cause for Colony Collapse Disorder. Recently, a report by researchers from the American Chemical Society linked bee die-offs to a specific insecticide used when planting corn. This research is another clue in solving this still-unsolved mystery, which likely has many causes.

How you can help

Here are a few things that you can do to protect bees:

  • Avoid using chemical pesticides when growing a garden.
  • Select food that has been grown without the use of chemical pesticides.
  • Be responsible about respecting planet Earth’s resources by turning off the tap when brushing your teeth, recycling or composting trash and turning off lights when not in use.
  • Discover how you can participate in the Pollinator Pathway movement here.
  • Become a hobbyist beekeeper and build a hive in your yard.

Want to learn more? Ask for The Case of the Missing Honeybees: A Scientific Mystery by Sandra Markle at your local library. You can find more kids' books on bee conservation here.


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