The life of a bee is a fascinating one. One interesting fact is that bees are the only insect that produce food consumed by humans. And that is one of the most troubling aspects of colony collapse disorder (CCD), which is causing the rapid decline in bee populations around the world. It is not just the supply of honey that is at risk. Bees are responsible for cross-pollinating plants, which in turn, enables fruits and vegetables to grow. So how does CCD affect the food supply chain as we know it?
Let’s first take a quick glimpse into the life of bees. Within every colony, there are three types of bees: the queen, drones, and workers. The numbers of these bees can be quite staggering. There is only one queen per colony, and she lays all the eggs. There are up to a few thousand drone bees, which are fertile male bees, and tens of thousands of infertile, female worker bees. Unlike their worker bee companions, drones do not have stingers and do not gather nectar and pollen; instead, their only job is to mate with the fertile queen. The bulk of the work done within the colony is from the female worker bees. These bees gather pollen to bring back to the hive to be used as food for the developing bees. The worker bees, in their quest to gather pollen, are responsible for cross-pollinating many of the plants that turn into food for humans. In winter time, when the weather becomes cold, bees form a cluster within the hive, with the queen at the center. They eat stored honey and rotate positions in the cluster throughout the winter to survive. Worker bees flap their wings when they shiver, which can raise the temperature inside the cluster to 80 degrees, enabling surviival.
The UN has been collecting data on “pollinators” over the last few years. And while there are a number of both invertebrate (bees, butterflies, other insects) and vertebrate pollinators (birds), bees make up the lion’s share of this category. In fact, bees account for approximately 80 percent of all pollination worldwide, and a single colony can pollinate up to 300 million flowers each day. While most grains are pollinated by the wind, 70 of the top 100 food crops consumed by humans worldwide are pollinated by bees. It is estimated that one out of every three bites of food consumed by humans was pollinated by bees.
Unfortunately, according to the UN’s research, the number of pollinators is shrinking. It says that two out of five species of invertebrate pollinators now face extinction, and one in six of the vertebrate pollinators do as well. There are conflicting ideas as to what exactly is killing off the bee population. Some people blame the increased use of insecticides, which are not selective in what insects they kill. Others blame climate change or increased disease for the decline in the bee population. Another theory looks at deforestation and habitat loss as the primary driver behind the population decline. Whatever the reason, the only thing that matters is that the population is declining, and the food supply chain will feel the impact.
The loss of pollinators puts “hundreds of billions of dollars” worth of crops at risk each year. The shrinking number of pollinators will lead to less pollinations, and a much lower crop yield. The end result down the road is a potential food shortage for the world. In the short term, from a supply chain standpoint, the die-off is also problematic. Less pollination makes sourcing incredibly difficult, as projecting crop yields will be problematic. The food shortage will also drive up the prices of produce, as competition for the lower yield intensifies. With lower output, the risk of spoilage in transportation becomes a bigger issue as well.
There is another side to the declining bee population that most people do not take into account: allergies. Right now, there is a shortage of honeybee, hornet, and wasp venom extracts used in shots that prevent life-threatening reactions. The extracts are made from venom that is gathered by hand from millions of individual insects. While EpiPens are the most common allergy relief on the market, a smaller number of allergy sufferers use venom immunotherapy (VIT) to reduce the reaction. These injections are given every few months during peak bee season to ward off reactions from a sting.
The current shortage is due to the closing of one of the two US-based manufacturers due to contamination issues. However, as the bee population declines, it will be harder to harvest the appropriate amount of venom that is needed to sustain the market. The venom shots cost about $70 for induction doses and about $20 for each maintenance dose. With a smaller supply, these prices will likely go up.
While many people see bees as a summertime nuisance, and fear a sting or two here or there, they are a vital part of our food chain. In fact, they are likely the most important part of the food supply chain. While they may not transport or warehouse any of the crops, or figure out the most efficient ways to get the crops from point A to point B, they are responsible for the crops maturing and becoming food. A continued decline in the bee population puts the world in jeopardy of a food shortage, which could be catastrophic.