Buzzing in Crisis: How Climate Change Affects Honey Bees

As climate change is intensifying, Honey bees are finding it hard to keep up with the shifts. Honey Bees pollinate about 75% of the world’s food crops, and play a crucial role in maintaining ecology. Climate change is affecting the behaviour, physiology and population of honey bees thereby affecting fruit production and seed yields and threatening food security.

Rapid changes in climate and extreme climate events are threatening Honey Bees. It is affecting their development cycle, behaviour and physiology, triggering death due to weak colonies. According to studies, a decline of about 20% in the bee population has been reported in India over the past few years and one of the major causes of this include nutritional stress from lack of pollen and nectar sources.

From Los Angeles to London, from Slovenia to Taiwan, honeybees are dying. In America alone, one in three hives was left lifeless at the end of 2008; in France, the death rate is closer to 60%. (Book: A World without Bees)

Flowers are blooming ahead of time because of the rising temperatures, as the ideal temperature that is required for this phenomenon is being recorded earlier than usual. This is affecting the production of nectar and pollen as the flowers are not fully developed, thus causing nutritional stress in Honey bees that are largely dependent on nectar for their growth and development. Worker honey bees usually start foraging at the young age of 3 weeks during which they develop their cognitive capabilities, gain flying experience and understand the structure of the hive. But the food insecurity in the hives is forcing the young bees to start out early leading to inefficient nectar collection, physical stress, and a reduction in their lifespan. The early deaths of worker bees would leave only the queen bee in the hive with a few immature bees incapable of managing a bee colony, leading to colony collapse thus affecting pollination.

A third of all that we eat, and much of what we wear, relies on pollination by honeybees. So if – or when – the world loses its black-and-yellow workers, the consequences will be dire.  (Book: A World without Bees)

Pollination is an essential element for the reproduction of plants; it is a prerequisite for the formation of good-quality crops. It is estimated that on a normal day, 50,000 honey bees pollinate about half a million plants that include cash crops like maize, oil seeds, apples, saffron and many more, making them the most hardworking type among the other pollinators. But the reported decline in their population affects crop production and quality, hampering the supply of food globally.

A recent study conducted by Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) revealed that the area under pollinator-dependent crops has been reducing since 2011 in India. It further indicated a decrease in crop yields, which impacted the accessibility and cost of nutritious foods. This in addition to an estimated overwhelming decline in global food production due to climate change could pose a serious threat to survival.  Also, yield losses impact the livelihoods of farmers. In order to handle the situation of declining bees, farmers in India are opting for hand pollination where they mimic honey bees by using paint brushes to pollinate. This is cost-intensive and time-consuming.

Hand Pollination

A farmer doing hand pollination.\source: Lifehacker

To evade a crisis, it is imperative to create a more pollinator-friendly world. Along with rigorous research by the agriculture science community, private, public and non-profit organizations should invest in utilizing technology, promoting bee-keeping and raising community awareness. Among the few frontrunners for this cause, The World Bee project is a promising initiative taking up bee conservation using cloud technology. It combines science, AI, and IoT to research and analyze the health of bees by listening to them. Accordingly, they build localized solutions to protect the health of bees. The “Sweet Revolution”, is an initiative by the National Bee Keeping and Honey Mission of the Government of India. The program is aiming to generate employment and ensure food security and bee conservation by promoting beekeeping. A growth of 4.43% in apiculture is being estimated in the period 2020-25 through this initiative. Research is needed on identifying climate-resilient varieties of plants for different regions that enhance nutrition among bees. Creating awareness among farmers to create small dedicated spaces of undisturbed soil, free of mulch or ground covers in farms to enable bees to dig nests and encouraging farmers to cultivate regional plants that bloom throughout the year will help negate the effects of extreme weather events.

Most importantly, educating people and communities about bees and their importance to our food system can help create a more pollinator-friendly world. (Jennie L. Durant)

In conclusion, considering the importance of honey bees in the ecological framework and their quintessential service as pollinators, serious and quicker measures need to be taken to mitigate the impacts of climate change on honey bees.

Sirinikitha B | Executive – Communications



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