A dramatic drop in bee populations began in 2005, and a number of factors continue to create problems for this key pollinator to this day. Here is a history of the issue.
Bees populations had been in decline before 1997, but in 2005 a steep drop-off began raising alarms among environmentalists and the agricultural workers who depend of honeybees to pollinate crops such as almond and fruit trees. This set off a "pollinator panic" that led to bees being imported to the U.S. from New Zealand for the first time in 50 years.
The populations of bees continued to decline, with some apiaries reporting losses of 30 to 70 percent in different regions of the U.S. The phenomena came to be known as colony collapse disorder and a number of potential causes were debated. Pesticides were a primary suspect from the beginning, but viruses, invasive mites, fungus, cell phone signals and climate change were also discussed as possible factors.
Beekeepers in the U.K. and Europe also reported significant losses in their colonies.
Research into the causes of colony collapse disorder continues to focus on pesticides, although many questions remain. The Natural Resources Defense Council files lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency for unpublished information about a pesticide made by Bayer CropScience. The suit eventually led to the publication of the missing Federal Register documents.
Because of bees importance in the human food chain, campaigns to "Save the Bees" pick up momentum. In the U.K., the Plan Bee campaign launched to demand government action, including money to research colony collapse disorder. As part of the campaign, The Co-operative, the largest co-op grocery chain in the country, bans the use of neonicotinoid-based pesticides sold in stores.
Another campaign launched by Haagen-Dazs and ExperienceProject.com used social media to promote awareness about the problem.
France, Germany and Italy suspend the use of neonicotinoids as a "precautionary measure."
The U.K. reported another bad winter for bee populations, with losses as high as 17 percent in some parts of the the country.
Work conducted by Jeff Pettis at the US Department of Agriculture found that bees often attempt to seal off cells in their combs prior to hives dying off. Pettis suggested that this defense mechanism is an effort to protect the hive from contaminates, but a direct link between pesticides and this entombing process was not established.
Research suggested that many of the hypothesize causes of colony collapse may work together, rather than a single factor. Professor May Barenbaum warned against any single, simplistic arguments about the cause the bee population decline.
Research connecting neonicotinoid pesticides and colony collapse was published. One study showed a link between pesticide-treated seeds and bee death, another paper showed that the ban on neonicotinoids in Italy led to fewer bee deaths. Other causes of bee death continued to be explored as contributing factors, such as viruses and hive-destroying mites. One study found that pesticides make bees more vulnerable to viruses. However, pesticides makers pushed back on the findings, and Bayer CropScience creates "bee care centers" to further their own research.
In both Europe and the U.S., activists sought regulatory measures banning pesticides and promoting bee populations. A petition promoted by AVAAZ for the global ban on neonicotinoid pesticides gained 1.2 million signatures. The campaign is still going on today, and has gathered over 2.5 million signatures.
In the U.K., environmentalists fail to win a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides and accused Parliament of turning a blind eye on the problem. In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency has begun a review process of neonicotinoids and several other pesticides, but the results of such a review may take several years.
This spring, environmentalists celebrated a win when the European Union voted in a two-year ban on neonicotinoid pesticides. In the U.S., results of the EPA review are still pending. In the meantime, Bayer is working hard to give itself a pro-bee facade by distributing wildflower seeds with bottles of pesticides.
The journal Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability published a meta analysis, showing that there are multiple ways that bees may be exposed to pesticides. The authors of this study conclude that "pollinator-friendly alternatives" are urgently needed.
Although progress towards protecting bees from pesticides is slow, awareness about the threat to bees seems to be on the rise. In June, thousands of bees found dead in a Target parking lot became national news. Preliminary findings point to the use of the neonicotinoid-based pesticide Safari, which was sprayed on nearby Linden trees.
There are a number of ways to get involved with the fight to save the bees, including regional and local efforts.