This story appears in the October 2017 issue of National Geographic magazine.
A honeybee queen, when all is right in her world, should live for two to three years. But in the United States, beekeepers have seen that life span drop by more than half over the past decade, and researchers are trying to determine why. It’s one of many questions surrounding the mystery of honeybee mortality, a disturbing phenomenon that’s linked to a mix of factors, including parasites, pesticides, and habitat loss.
Aside from making a delicious natural sweetener, honeybees—which are not native to the U.S.—also provide a crucial service to agriculture: pollination. From apples to almonds, many crops would suffer without honeybees. And while about 90 percent of beekeepers in this country are hobbyists, the majority of hives belong to large-scale, commercial operations, says North Carolina State University entomologist David Tarpy.
Colony collapse in general could be devastating to food production. So scientists are looking for alternatives. Most honeybees in the U.S. today are of Italian heritage and vulnerable to a pest called the varroa mite. But Russian bees are more resistant to it, and backyard beekeepers have had success with them. The problem, says Tarpy, is that Russian honeybees don’t make as much honey as their Italian counterparts and “aren’t as amenable” to the migratory nature of pollinating large-scale farms.
Another option, says wildlife biologist Sam Droege of the U.S. Geological Survey, is to embrace the thousands of North American wild bee species, which are excellent pollinators, rarely sting, and are typically the size of a grain of rice. The drawback for some people is that none of the wild bee species produce honey. But, says Droege, “we can always get honey from other countries.”