Factors affecting Apis mellifera L explored

In an interesting review published in Science Direct on pollinator decline globally, the plight of honey bees, Apis mellifera L. has too been explored in context, with referenced research supporting the conclusions.  Highlighting the “dreadful state of insect biodiversity in the world, as almost half of the species are rapidly declining and a third are being threatened with extinction”, the paper identifies loss of habitat to intensive agriculture as standing out as the root cause, with additional causes being climate change and invasive species; as well as agro-chemicals, with the “relentless use of synthetic pesticides [being] a major driver of insect losses in recent times (Dudley and Alexander, 2017”.

While the information is gathered largely from developed countries like Europe and North America, given their detailed historical records, it does touch on South Africa and other countries when evaluating the stressors, with the factors stated as relevant to other countries given insects are not expected to fare differently in tropical and developing countries.

Extract on Apis mellifera L

“In the USA, a peak of six million honey bee colonies was recorded in 1947 but this number has been declining ever since, with losses of 3.5 million over the past six decades at 0.9% annual rate of decline (Ellis, 2012). The demise started immediately after the introduction of the organochloride insecticide DDT in agriculture and has since continued unabated (Ellis et al., 2010). The main factors responsible for this steady decline include: widespread parasite and pathogen infections that are becoming more virulent in recent years (Anderson et al., 2011; Yang and Cox-Foster, 2007); lack of genetic variability; stress due to seasonal movement of hives for pollinating fruit and vegetable crops (Smart et al., 2016); toxic pesticide residues found in the pollen and nectar or applied to hives for controlling Varroa mites (Johnson et al., 2013); poor nutritional value of agro-landscapes dominated by monocultures (e.g. corn, oilseed rape, cotton (Huang, 2012); and finally the harsher climatic conditions of recent decades. The most likely explanation for the declines, however, is a combined effect derived from synergistic interactions between parasites, pathogens, toxins and other stressors (Alburaki et al., 2018; Goulson et al., 2015; Sánchez-Bayo et al., 2016b), which has resulted in the colony collapse disorder (CCD) (Underwood and vanEngelsdorp, 2007). Two thirds of American beekeepers presently lose about 40% of their colonies every year (Kulhanek et al., 2017), whereas 30% annual losses are reported for Europe, 29% in South Africa (Pirk et al., 2014) and 3–13% in China for both A. mellifera and A. cerana (Chen et al., 2017).

Managed colonies of honey bees worldwide are suffering from the same maladies and declining at similar rates (about 1% per year) in North America, Europe (Potts et al., 2010) and Australia (Gibbs, 2013). While parasites and diseases appear to be the proximate driver of the losses, synthetic pesticides have been involved in the losses from the very beginning (Ellis, 2012). The new generation of systemic insecticides, particularly neonicotinoids and fipronil, impair the immune system of bees (Di Prisco et al., 2013; Vidau et al., 2011) so that colonies become more susceptible to Varroa infections (Alburaki et al., 2015) and more prone to die when infected with viral or other pathogens (Brandt et al., 2017). Apart from bringing about multiple sub-lethal effects that reduce the foraging ability of worker bees (Desneux et al., 2007; Tison et al., 2016), neonicotinoid and fipronil insecticides equally impair the reproductive performance of queens and drones (Kairo et al., 2017; Williams et al., 2015), thus compromising the long-term viability of entire colonies (Pettis et al., 2016; Wu-Smart and Spivak, 2016).”

The solution?

Habitat restoration, coupled with a drastic reduction in agro-chemical inputs and agricultural ‘redesign’, is probably the most effective way to stop further declines, particularly in areas under intensive agriculture. For example, flower and grassland strips established at the field edge enhance the abundance of wild pollinators (Blaauw and Isaacs, 2014; Hopwood, 2008), and rotation of crops with clover boosts the abundance and diversity of bumblebees (Ekroos et al., 2014; Haaland and Bersier, 2011), which in turn boost crop yield and farm profitability. These ‘ecological engineering’ tactics not only favour pollinators but also conserve insect natural enemies that are essential for keeping at bay the herbivorous pest species of many crops (Dover et al., 2011; Gurr et al., 2012; Lu et al., 2015). However, for these measures to be effective, it is imperative that current pesticide usage patterns, mainly insecticides and fungicides, are reduced to a minimum as to permit a recovery of insect numbers and their associated ‘biological control’ services (Heong et al., 2015; Way and Heong, 1994). There is no danger in reducing synthetic insecticides drastically, as they do not contribute significantly to crop yields, but trigger pest resistance, negatively affect food safety and sometimes lower farm revenue (Bredeson and Lundgren, 2018; Lechenet et al., 2017). The judicious implementation of integrated pest management (IPM) in Europe as well as in developing countries of Africa and Asia over the years achieved similar or even greater crop yields (Furlan et al., 2017; Pretty and Bharucha, 2015; Pretty et al., 2011; Thancharoen et al., 2018). Furthermore, in many of the world’s farming systems, biological control constitutes an under-used yet cost-effective means to resolve agricultural pest problems while conserving biodiversity both on-farm and beyond the field border (Wyckhuys et al., 2019).

For aquatic insects, rehabilitation of marshlands and improved water quality are a must for the recovery of biodiversity (van Strien et al., 2016). This may require the implementation of effective remediation technologies to clean the existing polluted waters (Arzate et al., 2017; Pascal-Lorber and Laurent, 2011). However, priority should be given to reducing the contamination by runoff and leaching of toxic chemicals, particularly pesticides. Only such conditions can allow the re-colonization of a myriad of discrete species that support essential ecosystem services such as litter-decomposition and nutrient recycling, provide food to fish and other aquatic animals, and are efficient predators of crop pests, aquatic weeds and nuisance mosquitoes.”


“The conclusion is clear: unless we change our ways of producing food, insects as a whole will go down the path of extinction in a few decades (Dudley et al., 2017; Fischer et al., 2008; Gomiero et al., 2011). The repercussions this will have for the planet’s ecosystems are catastrophic to say the least, as insects are at the structural and functional base of many of the world’s ecosystems since their rise at the end of the Devonian period, almost 400 million years ago.”

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The above is an extract from the paper pertaining to the Apis mellifera L, you can download the full review “Worldwide decline of the entomofauna: A review of its drivers” in PDF here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320718313636

The review, and extract published above is authored by: Francisco Sánchez-Bayo, School of Life & Environmental Sciences, Sydney Institute of Agriculture, The University of Sydney, Eveleigh, NSW 2015, Australia; and Kris A.G. Wyckhuys, School of Biological Sciences, University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia, Chrysalis, Hanoi, Viet Nam, Institute of Plant Protection, China Academy of Agricultural Sciences, Beijing, China.

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