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Apis mellifera , European honey bee

The European honey bee, Apis mellifera (Family Apidae), is the most valubale insect in the world. Its production of honey in the United States alone is estimated to be worth around $300 million, and its pollination duties save us several times this staggering amount. Apis mellifera have been accused of causing the decline of native pollinators, but it seems that now both groups are in trouble. The decline of insect pollinators is currently one of the most important issues facing America.

Apis mellifera are recognized by their golden brown coloration as well as the numerous hairs on their body and eyes. Adult honey bees feed on nectar (they have an elongated glossa or tongue for this) and collect pollen for their larvae. These bees are essential pollinators throughout their range and occupy a diversity of habitats on all continents except Antarctica.

Insect pollinators are often essential to the sexual reproduction of plants. Therefore, any changes in their abundance and diversity raises concern for conservationists and growers alike. Pollinator decline became apparent from observations made at the end of the 20th century. In the past fifty years the population of feral honey bees, previously domesticated colonies that have returned to the wild, dropped by 90%. Managed colonies declined by 75%. On top of this, in the southwest U.S. Apis mellifera are slowly being replaced by the less productive Africanized "Killer" bee.

Suggested causes for pollinator decline include pesticide misuse, an increase in negative agricultural practices, and urbanization. Insecticide use has become unfortunatley ubiquitous across the United States. These insecticides often affect non-target species, including bees. It has also been suggested that a decrease in plant species due to herbicide use is driving pollinator decline. Urbanization, always a problem for conservation, has transformed rich habitats into highways and strip malls. Our actions have isolated and fragmented the honey bee habitat. Meanwhile, expanding agriculture replaces natural plant communities with monocultures. These man made habitats cannot always sustain the minimum viable population for bees.

Potential solutions for pollinator decline should include both conservation and restoration efforts. Better land management and reducution of pollinator mortality through proper pesticide use will be essential. Hopefully, research will soon tease out the major threats to these creatures so that a comprehensive plan can prevent the collapse of our agricultural system that will occur if insect pollinators go extinct.

Resources: Insect Pollinator Decline Information

Written by: Alyssa Whu , 2006; Eric Denemark 2008.


Image credit: Tree of Life Web Project