"They need us and we need them."

Photo by Michael Piazza / Styling by Catrine Kelty

Honeybees, it’s often cited, are responsible for pollinating one in three bites of food we eat. They pollinate over 70% of our food crops, which is part of why the recent vast hive die-offs known as colony collapse disorder are so unsettling. Without bees to pollinate the crops, supplies could drop and food prices could rise. Unless we protect the honeybees’ health, it’s a scenario we may watch unfold.

So what’s harming the honeybees? Among beekeepers and researchers, there’s no consensus that any one factor is to blame. Disease, stress, habitat loss, and pesticide exposure all play a role, says Noah Wilson-Rich of Best Bees, whose research focuses on ways to boost the immune function of honeybees so they have a better chance of survival.

Bees don’t have it easy. Migratory beekeeping, where vast quantities of bees are trucked around the country to pollinate different crops when they’re in season, harms the insects in a few ways. Lots and lots of bees in close proximity to one another makes it easier to spread disease like mites that are harmful to the bees. When bees work as migratory pollinators, their diets are far less diverse—they are typically feeding off the nectar of a monocrop, which can impact their overall health and immunity, explains Wilson-Rich.

Finally, most large-scale monocropping depends on insecticides to keep harmful pests at bay. One class of insecticides, known as neonicotinoids, is especially harmful to honeybees. Neonicotinoids are nicotine-derived insecticides that act systemically—when they’re used (commercial seeds are often treated with the stuff), they treat the entire plant, from the roots, stems, and leaves to the seeds, nectar, and pollen.

It’s difficult to prove that neonicotinoids are directly responsible for bee colony die-offs, but researchers have been able to demonstrate a correlation between an increased use of this type of pesticide and colony collapse disorder. Some scientists hypothesize that neonicotinoids may affect bees’ immune systems and make it more difficult to fend off mites and other viruses they may encounter.

Many beekeepers and scientists think neonicotinoids should be banned until research can prove that the pesticide is safe. In July, a massive bumblebee die-off in Oregon linked to nearby use of the pesticides led two Democratic congressmen, one from Oregon and the other from Michigan, to introduce the Save America’s Pollinators Act of 2013, which would direct the Environmental Protection Agency to temporarily ban the use of neonicotinoids and conduct more thorough research on whether they are safe to use.

What you can do to help honeybees: 

1. Plant a pollinator garden. A diverse collection of native flowering plants in a range of bright colors—along with a range of blooming times—will give bees the habitat and food sources they need.

2. Keep bees! Install a hive in your yard or garden and provide some bees with a home and a place to reproduce.

3. Practice organic lawn care and gardening. Neonicotinoids are most widely used commercially, but they can also be found in home gardening care products. Read labels, avoid using products labeled as systemic or that contain imidacloprid, and, ideally, use organic treatments on your lawn and garden. Your dinner depends on it!


Leigh Belanger is a writer and communications consultant with a focus on community food systems. She is the author of The Boston Homegrown Cookbook and the former program director for Chefs Collaborative, a national chef network dedicated to building a more sustainable food supply. She lives and cooks in Boston with her family.