In laboratories around the world, the best scientific minds are discovering new genome treatments for cancers, pushing the boundaries of nuclear fusion as a clean energy source, testing our food and beverages for contaminants that have the potential to cause illness or death, and studying the impact of global warming on our planet’s atmosphere.
While the efforts of these laboratories are crucial to the health and safety of the world’s population, there are other labs conducting critical research and testing that are just as valuable, yet rarely publicized, like those focused on bees.
While some find bees a mere annoyance, and a small percentage of others take precautions to avoid bees altogether due to the allergic reaction a sting can cause, bees are essential to our livelihood. Honeybees may have the biggest sustainable impact on the economy, medical advances, and food supply in the US. Therefore, research laboratories across the country are doing what they can to prevent the further decline of the honeybee population.
The value of a bee
Honeybees are the most commonly used pollinators in the US, pollinating over 100 crops grown in North America and contributing $15 billion to the US economy every year. Many crops—including almonds, blueberries, and cherries—rely on honeybees for 90 percent of their pollination.1 But the economic value doesn’t stop there. Honeybees produce tangible products such as wax and propolis, a natural resin used in candles, cosmetics, and health products. Of course, the US honey crop, which bees are most well known for, was itself valued at $321 million in 2021.2
Production of about one-third of the human diet requires pollination. Without bees, there would be no more nuts, coffee, tomatoes, broccoli, or apples, just to name a few food crops. A dearth of these crops could lead to nutritional deficiencies in the human diet, as fruits, vegetables, and nuts provide vital nutrients. Honeybees also contribute to livestock production through the pollination of forage plants, like alfalfa and clover.3
The use of honey dates back nearly 5,500 years, with the Grecians, Chinese, Romans, Mayans, and Babylonians not only consuming the product for nutritional value but also using it for medicinal purposes. Today, studies show that honey’s antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory properties make it a viable treatment for wounds and partial-thickness burns.3 It also has treatment applications for diabetes, asthma, cardiovascular disease, and neurological diseases.4 And in 2020, a research team discovered that honeybee venom induced cell death in aggressive triple-negative and HER2-enriched breast cancer subtypes, which could shape new treatment strategies to target aggressive breast cancers.5
And if that wasn’t enough, bees help plants survive, and plants provide cover for wildlife, prevent soil erosion, keep waterways clean, produce oxygen, and absorb CO2.
The decline in the bee population
Over the last 11 years, beekeepers in the US have lost an estimated 40 percent of their managed bee colonies.7 The number of working bee colonies per hectare provides a critical metric of crop health. In the US, among crops that require bee pollination, the number of bee colonies per hectare has declined by 90 percent since 1962. The bees cannot keep pace with the winter die-off rates and habitat loss. Although hives have remained at about 2.4 million since 2008, US National Agriculture Statistics show that there were about six million hives in 1947, a 60% reduction compared to today.8
Scientists know that bees are dying from a variety of factors including pesticides, loss of habitat, climate change, disease, air pollution, and drought. Most point to pesticides as the primary contributor, as the chemicals coat the seeds and remain on the plants that the bees pollinate. The pesticide powders also deplete the soil of essential nutrients the bees require. Consuming the pesticides can impair the bees’ ability to navigate, reproduce, and communicate with the colony.
The USDA also cites the bee mite, Varroa destructor, as the most serious pest of the honeybee. Female mites attach to adult bees. When there are a lot of mites present in a colony, they can create malformations like shortened abdomens, misshapen wings, and deformed legs, or even result in the death of the pupa, the early immature life stage of a bee.9
Human expansion and population growth have also contributed to bee decline. Rural areas, once a haven of weeds, dandelions, and native plants for bees, are now housing developments and industrial parks, stripped of plant life of any kind.
The US Department of Agriculture’s Agriculture Research Service (USDA ARS) sponsors five Bee Research Laboratories across the country, for the purpose of maintaining an adequate supply of healthy bees for the pollination of crops. The diagnosis of bee diseases has been the Beltsville, Maryland, lab’s focus, and they have developed a test to determine mites’ resistance to major chemical mite control substances.
Several universities also maintain bee labs as part of their agriculture curriculum. The University of Minnesota has offered an internationally recognized research, teaching, and outreach program on honeybees since 1918 at the Spivak Honey Bee Lab. The primary research focus at the Spivak lab is social behavior and bee breeding. The university also has the Cariveau Native Bee Lab, which studies the more than 400 bee species in Minnesota.
The UGA Honey Bee Lab at the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural & Environmental Sciences, in partnership with Dalan Animal Health, has developed the first-of-its-kind edible vaccine to protect honeybee populations from American foulbrood (AFB), a fatal disease caused by a spore-forming bacteria that affects honeybee colonies.
Oregon State University’s OSU Honey Bee Lab focuses its research on three key efforts: honeybee health, nutrition, and pollination. OSU has over 100 bee colonies across four research apiaries, totaling four million honeybees. The lab is estimated to save Oregon’s beekeepers about $5 million per year in reduced colony losses and costs for medications.10
Auburn University officially opened the Smith Bee Lab on January 1, 2021. In its short time as a functional lab, the Auburn researchers have coordinated Alabama’s honeybee colony loss survey, studied the effects of pathogens and parasites, joined forces with other universities and the five USDA ARS labs to develop strategies for winter hive management, and produced their own brand of honey.
In closing …
According to the USDA, one colony of honeybees is worth 100 times more to the community than to the beekeeper. The pollination service the bee provides is invaluable compared to the by-product (honey) it produces. Without bees, many crops would cease to grow, everyday commercial agriculture products would not be grown, and many medical treatments would go undiscovered.
The work of bee laboratories across the country and scientists who value the importance of the bee is focused on making every effort to protect and increase the bee population, provide the insect with life-saving treatments for parasites, promote the use of alternative pesticides, and encourage the planting of bee-friendly parks and gardens.
4 Simon A, Traynor K, Santos K, Blaser G, Bode U, Molan P. (2009) Medical honey for wound care – still the ‘latest resort’? Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 6:165–73. https://doi.org/10.1093%2Fecam%2Fnem175