Among the many traditions of Rosh Hashanah, arguably the sweetest is eating apples dipped in honey. Honey is unique in that it is the only natural food that contains all the necessary elements to sustain life, including enzymes, vitamins, minerals and water. While artificial or “fake” honey does exist, the vast majority of the sweet substance we eat to commemorate the new year comes from the work of honeybees. Other than providing us with honey, bees are integral to the environment because they are the largest contributor to plant pollination. According to Sustain, about one-third of the food we consume daily is primarily pollinated by bees. Additionally, even if a crop is not pollinated by bees, it still indirectly benefits from being part of an ecosystem along with honeybees because the bees lead to increased biodiversity in the area, which helps stimulate crop growth.
Despite the extreme importance of bees to food production and the world economy, the bee population decreases by millions each year. Environment America reports that beekeepers see an average loss of 30 percent of their honeybee colonies each winter, which is twice the loss considered to be economically tolerable. Wild bees are seeing similarly alarming death rates. So why are the bees dying? There’s no singular reason for the startling rise of colony collapse disorder, says Sierra Club, with parasites, pathogens, pesticides, poor nutrition and habitat loss all playing a significant role. Perhaps the greatest contributor to colony collapse disorder is the widespread use of neonicotinoid pesticides, which are known to short-circuit the memory and navigation ability of bees. Nearly two-thirds of hives surveyed in Canada and the United States were contaminated with at least one synthetic pesticide, of which neonicotinoids make up a significant portion.
As bee populations decline worldwide, Israel is one of the nations that has taken the most significant steps to combat the problem. According to The Jerusalem Post, Israel ensures that its bee population declines by only 10% or less each year, rather than the 30% to 50% declines that the United States sees annually. This is accomplished through a variety of different measures. To start, Israel has adopted guidelines for eradicating Varroa mites, another core cause of colony collapse disorder. In addition, Israeli beekeepers take care to vary the diets of their bees, which keeps them healthy and has the added benefit of creating different flavors of honey, based on what the bees eat. Finally, Israel has planted shrubs and flowers in previously empty areas to provide bees with more places to form colonies, while also keeping the major colonies close together so that beekeepers can monitor and protect them.
Last month, Israeli beekeepers at the Dvorat Ha’Tavor educational center built a unique beehive out of LEGO bricks to highlight their well-protected colonies, which got a lot of buzz on social media. At the educational center, they arranged randomly colored bricks into the shape of a Langstroth apiary commercial beehive and filled it with bees and their honeycombs. Educational centers like this one are key to helping bees survive because many people are unaware of the plight of the bees and how important they are to nature, food and the world economy.
There is a little good news, as the US Department of Agriculture has reported small increases in the number of commercial beehives in recent months, but the problem of bee colony collapse remains a serious one worldwide. If other nations such as the United States can adopt some of the provisions that Israel has begun to use, perhaps the bees can be saved before it is too late.
Take the honeybee quiz here!