Let It Bee

CC/ Alvesgaspar

CC Credit: Alvesgaspar

Honeybees are sophisticated creatures. They are one of the few nonhuman animals to communicate symbolically, using a waggle dance and excreting pheromones to recruit and direct others in the hive to a new food source. The honeybee waggle dance is a unique animal signal that exhibits several characteristics of true language.

Bees have a phenomenal sense of smell. Researchers at Los Alamos used Pavlovian associative learning techniques to train honeybees to detect explosives. ‘Sniffing’ bees have been used to detect landmines and illegal drugs. They have been able to correctly diagnose tuberculosis and diabetes in humans and there is evidence that bees can be used to sniff out cancer as well.

Honeybees are in trouble. Big trouble. The crisis began in the fall of 2006, when beekeepers noticed that many of their hives were empty except for a few lethargic drones and a queen. The other bees (which could number up to 80,000 per hive) had disappeared. In 2014, the total colony loss rate was 42.1 percent. This phenomenon was eventually named colony collapse disorder (CCD). No single cause of CCD has been proven, but most beekeepers and researchers blame the 3 Ps: poor nutrition, pesticides, and pests. Since no one has figured out how to stop the loss of bees, commercial beekeepers have had to multiply their hives faster than the bees can die off. As one beekeeper said, “They’re becoming more intensively managed … it keeps growing more precarious.” The problem is worrisome enough that the government released a May 19 report outlining their national strategy to promote the health of pollinators.

Precarious or not, more than 100 commercial crops in the United States rely almost entirely on managed honeybees for pollination. They provide 80 percent of insect pollination on industrial crops. These crops are worth an estimated $15 billion every year. People won’t starve to death if honeybees disappear, but our food choices will be severely limited. There will be no more chocolate, no raspberries, no apples, no coffee, no blueberries, no strawberries, no almonds, no canola … the list goes on and on. The salad bar would consist of greenery and mushrooms.

Honeybees are very unlikely to sting you, unless you do something stupid (like poke around in the hive) or unfortunate (like unintentionally stepping on a honeybee while barefoot). If you do get stung, it will hurt, but not terribly. According to entomologist Justin Schmidt, the “sensation is like a match head that flips off and burns on your skin.” And he should know. The Schmidt Sting Pain Index includes 78 species and ranks the pain intensity of their stings from 0-4. All scores and descriptions are based on Schmidt’s personal experiences being stung by more than 150 different species. Here’s a top ten list of the most painful stings.