Honey Bees: A Critical Component of Our Agriculture System

EDM Digest (from American Military University) August 5, 2019

By Dr. Brian Blodgett: Faculty Member, Homeland Security, American Military University

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To many Americans, the sound of a bee’s buzzing results in a swift swipe of the air to shoo the bee away. Finding a hive of bees in a wall of your house will usually result in a call to an exterminator, rather than to the local beekeeping club to have an apiarist safely remove the hive. 

Bee Stings Are Painful and Could Be Deadly

The fear of bees, or melissophobia, is common, often the result of having been stung as a child. However, some people are so allergic to a bee’s sting, they can have a dangerous reaction such as anaphylaxis that could cause death if not immediately treated.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently published data showing that hornet, wasp and bee stings were the underlying cause of death for 1,109 individuals between 2000 and 2017. That equates to an average of 62 deaths a year. The lowest number of deaths, 43, occurred in 2001 and the highest number was 89 in 2017. Male victims accounted for approximately 80% of the deaths.

A 2016 report by The Ohio State University stated that an estimated one to two million people in the U.S. are allergic to insect venom. Up to one million individuals visit emergency departments each year. The cost for an emergency room visit varies considerably depending on the severity of the reaction and the patient’s insurance plan.

While honey bee stings can be deadly, the bees will rarely attack you unless you threaten their hive or if they are seriously disturbed outside their nest.

When honey bees are threatened, they take a protective stance and extend their stinger, stinging their victim. Once the stinger punctures the skin, it pumps out venom and alarm pheromones, attracting other bees. If a bee decides to attack someone, it will be its last act because its stinger is left in the skin of its victim. In attempting to fly away, the bee disembowels itself.

The African honey bee, found in the southern areas of the United States, is no deadlier than the other six primary species of honeybees found in the United States. Instead, they are much more sensitive to the alarm pheromone, resulting in a considerably faster response to danger and their clustering in large groups. They will attack nearly anything in sight that is moving; they will pursue a person much farther than the other bee species.

Honey Bees Make a Significant Contribution to Agriculture

While the honey produced by bees is wonderfully useful and healthy, the bees’ contribution to agriculture is much more significant. A single bee in one flight can visit up to 50 or more flowers, pollinating each as it flies along.

If you enjoy fresh fruits such as strawberries, blueberries, cherries, grapefruit and apples, thank the honey bee. If you like broccoli, nuts, cucumbers, onions and asparagus,  thank the honey bee again. While honey bees are not the only pollinators, they are the most well-known and among the most prolific. Honey bees are estimated to support about $20 billion worth of American crop production annually.

Also, consider the importance to wildlife of our flowering plants and fruit trees. Without the bees, our herbivores and frugivores (animals that feed on fruit) would have a much harder time finding food. According to the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA), pollinators are responsible for one of every three bites of food we eat and they increase our nation’s crop value by more than $15 billion a year.

In fact, honey bees are so important to agriculture, they are often trucked around the country during pollination season to help farmers grow their crops.

Each winter, beekeepers send their hives to California to pollinate the almond trees. Growers rent nearly two million colonies, over 60% of the nation’s domestic bees. The annual cost for renting the bees is about $300 million, but the California almond economy is worth around $11 billion.

Colony Collapse Disorder and the Plight of Domestic Honey Bees

However, bee colonies are dying in large numbers. According to the June 2019 Bee Informed Partnership's survey, “U.S. beekeepers lost nearly 40% of their honeybee colonies last winter — the greatest reported winter hive loss since the partnership started its surveys 13 years ago. The total annual loss was slightly above average.”

According to the survey, there are multiple causes for what has been called “colony collapse disorder.” Those causes include the Varroa destructor mite, decreasing crop diversity, poor beekeeping practices, loss of habitat, the use of certain pesticides on plants and stress.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), colony collapse disorder (CCD) occurs when most of the worker bees in a hive disappear for any of several reasons. That leaves the queen with plenty of food for the unhatched bees, but only a few bees to take care of them.

Since hives cannot sustain themselves without worker bees, the entire colony dies. CCD occurrences have diminished considerably since the winter of 2006-2007 when beekeepers reported losses of 30 to 90 percent of their hives. Nevertheless, the EPA states CCD remains a concern, and scientists are working on several theories for the phenomenon:

Honey bees are being attacked by the small invasive Varroa destructor mites that can destroy an entire colony. Since the introduction of the Varroa destructor in Florida in the mid-1980s, they had spread northward to almost every state by 2017. A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) stated that the “Varroa destructor is the greatest single driver of the global honey bee health decline.”

The use of pesticides is also a concern. The EPA took steps in 2016 to limit the use of sulfoxafor, an insecticide that is highly toxic to bees and other pollination insects. However, just last month the EPA removed many of the restrictions on the use of sulfoxafor.

Farmers can now use the insecticide on about 190 million acres of arable land, nearly twice the size of California. The crops that can be sprayed with sulfoxaor include soybeans, cotton, alfalfa, millet, oats, pineapple, sorghum, tree plantations, citrus, squash and strawberries.

According to an article in Mother Jones, the transportation of honey bees around the nation, their attacks by parasites, the use of insecticides and the vast number of single-crop areas needing pollination are causing stress to the honey bee.

Just as data continue to show the decline of domestic honey bees, the USDA, citing budgetary shortfalls, announced in July that it would no longer fund its National Agriculture Statistics Service to collect data on honey bee colonies. The report helped scientists and farmers determine if honey bee populations were declining and by how much.

Honey Bees and Our Food and Agriculture Sector

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), under Presidential Policy Directive 21, is responsible for ensuring that our critical infrastructure “must be secure and able to withstand and rapidly recover from all hazards.”

In the 2015 Food and Agriculture Sector-Specific Plan, facilities primary engaged in raising insects, such as bees, fall under DHS purview in the animal production category. A decrease in the number of domestic honey bees can be costly not only for farmers to “rent” them, but also for all Americans because the loss of bees could lead to steeper food prices.

Our nation’s honey bees are not thought of as a target of violent extremists or terrorists. Nevertheless, individuals are attacking them in their hives. In April, someone deliberately set fire to a large number of beehives in Alvin, Texas, just south of Houston. Each hive contained around 30,000 bees. The destruction of the hives resulted in the loss of 500,000 to 600,000 bees.

In January 2018, outside Prunedale, California, over 100 beehives were destroyed when someone knocked over the hives and then sprayed gasoline on them, killing over 200,000 bees. On December 28, 2017, 50 beehives outside Sioux City, Iowa, were destroyed, resulting in approximately 500,000 dead, frozen bees.

DHS needs to recognize the importance and criticality of our nation’s bees and the role they play as a primary contributor to our ecosystem. An attack against bees is an attack against Americans’ wellbeing in general.

Due to our nation’s extreme dependence on honey bees, action is needed to ensure we have enough bees to sustain our crops. There are several steps that we can take to ensure our bee population is not decimated:

  • Ban the use of pesticides that are harmful to bees is a main step

  • Providing shallow sources of water and providing the bees with plenty of bee-friendly flowers, plants and trees

  • Allow leafy vegetables to go to seed after harvest

  • Support local beekeepers by buying their honey

  • Teach children about the importance of bees and the interdependence of living animals

About the Author 

Dr. Brian Blodgett is an alumnus of American Military University who graduated in 2000 with a master of arts in military studies and a concentration in land warfare. He retired from the U.S. Army in 2006 as a Chief Warrant Officer after serving over 20 years, first as an infantryman and then as an intelligence analyst. He is a 2003 graduate of the Joint Military Intelligence College where he earned a master of science in strategic intelligence with a concentration in South Asia. He graduated from Northcentral University in 2008, earning a doctorate in philosophy in business administration with a specialization in homeland security.

Dr. Blodgett has been a part-time faculty member, a full-time faculty member and a program director. He is currently a full-time faculty member in the School of Security and Global Studies and teaches homeland security and security management courses.

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