Science, Now + Beyond

Here’s why it’s terrifying that bees are dying out

One can only hope that the news that bees have joined the endangered species list will motivate us to do something.

I have three boxes of bees in my bedroom.

That sounded weirder than I meant it to, let me rephrase: My grandfather was an entomologist who specialized in bees and pollination. He collected different species to study their anatomy and occasionally even discovered a new species of his own.

When he passed away four years ago, he left behind boxes upon boxes of bees, meticulously labeled and carefully studied. Because I’m sentimental (and have a huge soft spot for bees), I kept a few of the boxes as a memory of him and of how incredibly important bees are to our world.

Naturally, when I heard the news this week that seven bee species in Hawaii have been added to the endangered species list (the first time bees have made the list), I was devastated.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service updated its endangered species list this month and added seven species of Hawaiian yellow-faced bees. According to the Xerces Society, these species are “the first bees in the country to be protected under the Endangered Species Act.” The Xerces Society advocated for the Hawaiian bees to join the endangered species list, but communications director Matthew Shepherd wrote that “there is much work that needs to be done to ensure that Hawaii’s bees thrive.”

The news from Hawaii is sobering: bees are in danger all across the world, not solely in the Pacific Islands. Habitat destruction, nonnative plant species, natural disasters, nonnative predators, pollution, and pesticides are all reeking havoc on the bee population. As the United Nations announced in February, “about 40 percent of invertebrate pollinator species (such as bees and butterflies) are facing extinction.”

That’s bad news.

See, the thing is that of all the plants in the world, about 75% of those that we eat depend on pollination. No bees, no food.

One of the first memories I have of spending time with my grandfather was hiking out in the middle of nowhere to check his bee traps. He and my grandmother developed a system of making straw-filled traps that resembled bee hives, so that they could capture local bees and study different regions’ ecosystems. It didn’t take much scientific knowledge to piece together his employment for the US Department of Agriculture and his interest in bee health to figure out that bees were vital for crops.

We’ve known that bees were in trouble since 2006 and 2007 (and honestly, probably even earlier). And we’ve known that bees were important to agriculture since before the dawn of time. Yet we’ve been incredibly slow to take action to save the bees.

One can only hope that the news that bees have joined the endangered species list will motivate people to action. (Though if we’re going to look at bad news motivating people, we might be out of luck, a la global warming.) I’m honestly not all that hopeful. Call me a cynic, but I haven’t seen people called to action by melting ice caps or rising CO2 levels. And if that can’t motivate people, I don’t know what will.

Our world is facing massive climate changes that will destroy our environments, agriculture, and species if we don’t act fast. The yellow-faced bees in Hawaii are lucky to be joining the endangered species list and not the extinction list (change has come too late for many). Since I can’t put my faith in world governments or pesticide companies, let me put my faith in you.

If you think the bees are, quite literally, the bees knees, then try following some of these easy tips to keep bees from going extinct.

Buy more honey (especially locally produced varieties, yum!), plant more flowers (especially in urban areas), support your local beekeepers, and speak up if your town or city is considering policies that effect pollinators. You won’t just be saving them, but us as well.