Virginia’s honeybee decline is deeply alarming.
The necessity for that alarm might not be obvious to today’s largely urban and suburban culture, generations removed from direct reliance on the land.
But consider this: Bees pollinate 70 of the top 100 human food crops, and honeybees are a major part of that. Bumblebees, to cite just one more example, are in such decline that they’ve recently been placed on the endangered species list.
No pollination, no food.
The effects spread well beyond the plant foods that humans consume directly. Pollination also is needed to produce feed for livestock, such as cattle, which provide milk and meat for human consumption. Without pollinators, this source of food is also imperiled.
Beyond that lies yet another impact — to the economy in general.
Virginia agriculture and its related industries generated $70 billion in total output in 2015, with $36.2 billion in value added to the state’s economy — or about 7.5 percent of Virginia gross domestic product, according to a study last year by the Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service at the University of Virginia.
Those figures include the commonwealth’s entire agricultural output — but, again, there’s hardly a corner of the industry that is not dependent on plant pollination at some point.
Nationally, 30.7 percent of managed honeybee colonies were lost over the past winter, a 9.5 percent increase from 2016.
But Virginia’s colonies declined by 59.5 percent, according to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Yes, that’s alarming.
Some of that loss can be attributed to our recent weather. We had a cold winter; and since honeybees cluster together for warmth and protection, hives already depleted by decline are at a special disadvantage, unable to keep their queens and young bees alive. Then we had a wet spring, stranding bees in their hives and preventing them from finding the food that they desperately needed.
We can’t do anything about the weather.
But we must do something to protect our pollinators.
It was about 12 years ago that beekeepers began noticing dramatic losses in honeybee hives, and scientists got involved. Researchers identified mites and infections as playing a role in hive death, but still aren’t sure why these dangers have increased or why bees are unable to fight them off.
Researchers suspect that pesticide use and climate change might be contributing causes (bumblebees, for instance, are not adapting by moving northward as habitat heats up in the southern parts of their range). But these hypotheses are politically incorrect in some circles, and face resistance.
Thomas Jefferson founded UVa on the premise that “here we are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
Scientific inquiry is necessary into the critical questions surrounding catastrophic hive death and how to prevent it, and we must not be afraid to follow that truth where it leads.
Increased research funding must be allocated so that scientists can answer these critical questions.
We don’t know where the tipping point lies, but if pollinator decline continues at this pace, our own health and well-being will be endangered as well.