No, I am not referring to the goddess from the Super Bowl half time. I am talking about our furry yellow workers who are highly underrated on their existence to this planet.
Home Sweet Home
The official National Honey Bee Day is on August 20th of this year. Let’s be realistic here, if I asked you if this date meant anything to you, would you have promptly replied that it is a proud day to be paying a huge amount of respect towards the collective efforts of nature’s own honey bees?
That is why I’m asking you to take a step out of your current reality, a step out of your mind clouded by personal worries of work, study and relationships and to take a big leap into the field of science. Once you have landed, imagine a glowing, miniaturised projection of Earth that spins mesmerizingly in front of you. Suddenly, the air turns sharply cold. Then you notice that the Earth has stopped spinning and the continent of Europe is standing before you.
In recent winters, and in Europe alone, there has been a loss of up to 53% of bees and in other cases more. But these kind of reports have dated back as far as the Roman Empire.
Now imagine the temperature increasing and a bed of luscious green grass growing at your feet. Varieties of flowers begin poking out in different directions and a soothing buzzing sound invites bees to your presence. But one-by-one each bee begins to drop around you and consequently the flowers lose their colour and shrivel up.
That pounding worry of what might happen once the extinction of bees come upon us is what it is like for researchers who are figuring out ways to maintain bee population are constantly feeling.
But the current rapid decline of bees compared to previous dates is different, says Boris Baer, director of the University of Western Australia’s Centre for Integrative Bee Research. “We don’t see bee populations recovering.”
In the US, the number of managed honeybee colonies has declined from six million in 1947 to 2.5 million today.
Bees in decline have always been a part of your reality, and probably unknowingly, but I hope I have made the issue more real to you than it was before.
The entirety of the Earth’s ecosystems relies on the critical role of bee’s pollinating our plants and crops, supporting our overall agricultural system and continuation of food production which we clearly need if we want to survive.
The number comes to about 80 percent when describing the amount of pollination bees perform worldwide. Imagine the substantial amount of work required to self-pollinate ourselves if we no longer had bees to assist us? In comparison to bee’s, hand-pollinating crops would be extremely labour intensive, slow and expensive.
These social insects reside together in large groups known as colonies and due to their miniscule size, their services are somewhat disregarded when we go out to purchase our fresh and organic produce from the market.
In fact, you have a bee to thank for every one in three bites of food you eat.
Economically, the collapse of the worldwide bee colony would be a huge devastation as the figure that goes to funding bees’ pollination work is estimated to be around 400 billion AUD dollars. Letting bees die off would lead to an immense economic consequence.
Don’t be a buzzkill
But what is causing the unusually high decline in the population of bees?
The general view is that colony collapse disorder is a perfect storm of pesticides, particularly neonicotinoids. The use of these chemicals in agricultural and urban areas have increased in order to control weeds, insect infestation and various pests that may harbour disease.
Another view is the existence of pests, particularly Varroa mites. These mites enjoy going around and sucking out the blood-like hemolymph of bees and is a serious threat to apiculture globally. Further pressure is placed on bee’s if the uprising of other pathogens and viruses occur.
In addition is climate change. Changes in weather patterns, rises in temperature, and extreme weather events occurring at higher rates show impacts on the population. Ultimately, the affect climate change has is on the communities of bees that could lead towards the life-threatening effect of the entire species.
Despite the response of the European Union in restricting neonicotinoids in 2013 and beekeepers increased efforts in fending bees from Varroa mites through the utilisation of bee-friendly chemicals, there has not been a huge impact in resolving the global phenomenon of the colony collapse.
Let the bees be the fighters
This has steered scientists towards a new path which explores the natural immunity of bees. Research has studied the behaviour of queen bees and how they immunise their young during their vital development stage as larvae.
If we take a look at baby mammals, we see that they also acquire their immunity during their vulnerable young age from antibodies transferred in the mother’s milk. As it turns out, mother bees also pass on the same type of immunity to their egg.
So we come upon a question: Could vaccinating baby bees reverse the global decline in bee numbers?
Dalial Freitak at the University of Helsinki and colleagues think yes.
A common yolk protein which nourishes a developing bee larvae is seen to kick-start their immune system.
Although details of this transfer is still vaguely understood, it is more of a primitive version of the “innate immunity” which humans also carry. Innate immunity is when cells recognise certain fragments of bacteria and stimulate a rapid immune response. But for bee’s to stimulate the same response, a fragment of bacteria must be shuttled into the egg.
Tests have been conducted which verified that pathogen fragments are deposited into unlaid eggs and once they have been laid by the queen, the larvae’s immune system is triggered to make antimicrobial peptides that arms the bee once they emerge from the egg.
These fragments are usually found in pollen and nectar that is firstly collected by forager bees for the queen’s royal jelly. The queen’s gut enzymes then break down the pathogens and stores it as “fat bodies” in her abdomen and head. Vitellogenin, a major protein found in bee eggs, then transfers the fat bodies to the queen’s ovaries which is finally inserted into the egg.
It is clear to say that Freitak has come up with a vaccine which contains pre-digested fragments of bacterium which beekeepers can add to bee food for the queen’s dinner thus inside her eggs. These treatments, Freitak hopes, could act as a treatment given on demand and “work like a yearly flu shot”.
This gives the world a new insight of hope from the possibility of vaccination treatments for bees. But even with your own individual help in restoring and protecting bee’s provides an additional hand for scientists fighting the issue.
So that’s all the hype about queen bees, making me think that Beyoncé has some competition in who can gain the most attention in this world.
USGS Science For a Changing World 2013, The Buzz on Native Bees, retrieved 1 May 2016, <http://www2.usgs.gov/blogs/features/usgs_top_story/the-buzz-on-native-bees/>.
Greenpeace International 2014, Bees in Decline: A review of factors that put pollinators and agriculture in Europe at risk, retrieved 2 May 2016, < http://sos-bees.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/BeesInDecline.pdf>.
Greenpeace International 2014, Save the Bees, retrieved 2 May 2016, <http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/sustainable-agriculture/save-the-bees/>.
Michigan State University 2016, Pollination, retrieved 2 May 2016, <http://nativeplants.msu.edu/pollination>.
Greenpeace International 2014, Bees in Decline: Executive Summary, retrieved 2 May 2016, < http://bees-decline.org>.
Varma 2015, Bees begin to emerge from their cells, in this still photo taken from Anand Varma’s timelapse video of bee development, photograph, National Geographic, For a Biologist-Turned-Photographer, a Beehive Becomes a Living Lab, retrieved 2 May 2016, <http://proof.nationalgeographic.com/2015/05/13/for-a-biologist-turned-photographer-a-beehive-becomes-a-living-lab/>.
Richter, V 2016, ‘Saving the world’s crops with a vaccine for bees’, Cosmos, Issue 66, pp. 18 – 19.