Office Hours: Super Bugs

An Emory expert has the buzz on bees

Tender Care: Berry Brosi tends his beehive on the roof of Emory's Math and Science Center.
Bryan Meltz

Honeybees are essential to American health and agriculture—a fact that is gaining public awareness as their populations decline. It’s estimated that pollinators, primarily bees, are responsible for one in three bites of food we eat.

Their plight has caught the attention of President Barack Obama, who recently announced an ambitious national plan to protect insects. “It’s an important wake-up call,” says Emory biologist Berry Brosi, an assistant professor of environmental science whose research encompasses both managed honeybees and wild bees. “It’s past time for us to realize the vital links between biodiversity, our environment, and our own well being. Ultimately, that’s what this national plan is about.”

Many pollinators, including bees, birds, butterflies, bats, and other animals, are in serious decline in the US and worldwide. Brosi is one of seventy-five authors working on a global assessment of pollinators for the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel for Biodiversity Ecosystem Services.

“In some places in China, people are hand-pollinating apple trees because they don’t have enough of an insect workforce to do it,” Brosi says. “Examples like that should be sobering. Pollination is an extremely laborintensive task that bees are specially evolved to do. This isn’t about saving an exotic animal in a faraway place. We’re talking about the possibility of not having nuts and fruits for our breakfast, shortages of tomatoes and melons, and rising milk prices due to a lack of alfalfa pollination.

“The fate of bees,” Brosi adds, “will affect people very viscerally.” —Carol Clark

Five Reasons Why You Should Care—Really Care—about Bees

They Really Get Around.

Honeybee pollination alone is worth more than $15 billion to US agriculture, “providing the backbone to ensuring our diets are plentiful with fruits, nuts, and vegetables,” the White House pollination plan states. And bees are important to more than just food crops, says Brosi. Cotton plants, for example, need pollination to produce the fibers that are a cornerstone of the garment industry. 

Their Numbers Are Diving.

Currently, about two thousand commercial beekeepers in the US manage their bee colonies as “livestock,” traveling across the country to service pollination contracts with farmers and honey producers. Each year, however, the number of bee colonies has gone down even as beekeepers struggle to rebuild them. Since the 1940s, the number of managed colonies has shrunk by nearly half, according to the USDA. “Wild bee populations are also declining wherever we look, although we don’t have good long-term data,” Brosi adds. 

They Have Connections.

The reasons for the loss of bee populations appear to be myriad and complex, ranging from shrinking habitats to parasites, diseases, and pesticide use. The phenomenon of the winter migration of the monarch butterfly, from across the US to Mexico, is also imperiled, another indicator that bugs are in big trouble. The three lowest overwintering populations of the Eastern monarch on record have occurred during the past decade. Emory evolutionary biologist Jaap de Roode, who runs one of the few labs in the world focused on monarch butterflies, says that most of this decline is due to disappearing habitat—especially the milkweed plants that monarchs feed on as caterpillars. “Preservation of remaining milkweed and restoration of habitat are key to maintaining the spectacular migration of this iconic insect,” he says. 

Bees Are Just the Beginning.

Ninety percent of flowering plants and many other animals, not just humans, depend on pollinators for their survival. “There could be a lot of hidden declines occurring in association with declines in pollinators that we won’t pick up on for a long time,” Brosi says. “That’s frightening, and one of the areas I’m most concerned about.” 

The Bugs Can Bounce Back.

One optimistic note is that bees and other insect pollinators tend to be highly resilient, Brosi adds. “They can thrive in places you wouldn’t expect, such as cities. It’s an interesting conundrum that pollinators do the worst in industrial agriculture areas where we need them the most. When you limit the diversity of plant species and douse fields with pesticides, it can have a lot of unintended negative consequences. A bigger solution to this problem needs to be reimagining the ways in which our agricultural system functions."

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