The Indigenous Species, Honey Bees, and Revaluation of Agricultural Practices

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Introduction

The honey bee, Apis Mellifera, and humans have done far more than just coexisted upon this tiny planet we call Earth. Inevitably, our relationship has intertwined our destinies and will have distinct impacts upon both throughout our continued existence on Earth. For almost as long as honey bees and humans have cohabitated on our planet, humans have interacted with honey bees in many ways throughout our mutual evolution. Throughout time, humans have left clues and glimpses mapping our extensive relationship with the honey bee. Our interactions were significant enough to be illustrated by our ancestors. As far back as some 25,000 years ago, humans have been utilizing the products crafted by the honey bee. Rock art designed by early humans in the Upper Paleolithic period illustrated the collection of honey by our ancestors had been discovered in areas of Australia, Spain, Africa, India (Hirst, 2013). Ancient humans found the products created by honey bees desirable or important enough to consume. Traces of honey and the waxy residue was detected in Stone Age pottery that was crafted by our ancient ancestors approximately 8,500 years ago (Fessenden, 2015).

By testing pottery shards found in various archeological sites, research has determined that our Neolithic predecessors began harvesting raw honey in Anatolia (Roffet-Salque et al., 2016). Our Neolithic ancestors most likely collected the honey and beeswax for many of the same reason’s humans utilize them today. The wax and honey were most likely used as a sweetener, cosmetics, crafting various items, and most importantly as medicinal usage. By the time the Bronze Age came about humans had learned how to farm honey bee populations. Our predecessors were kind enough to leave written remnants documenting their beekeeping practices during the Bronze Age in regions of Hittite kingdom, Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, and Sumer (Hirst, 2013).

Hieroglyphs illustrate their ancient beekeeping skills. Ancient Egyptians valued honey bees so much that they incorporated them into their pantheons. A papyrus written somewhere around 300 BCE describes their god Ra weeping tears that turned into bees (Traynor, 2016). This beekeeping endeavor initiated by our ancestors has grown into a worldwide practice that is continually evolving. Our benefactor the honey bee, Apis mellifera, is responsible for pollinating many of the crops and products we consume. Thirty percent of the foods consumed in the United States is only possible through the pollination of plants by the honey bee (Mortensen, Schmehl, & Ellis, 2017). Our part in this relationship has not been as beneficial to them. In the United States, around the 1940s, approximately 6 million beehives were being managed. This number has since declined to somewhere around 2 million managed colonies (Sethi, 2018).

The Issue/Threat/Problem

Honey bees are facing a formidable and mysterious foe. Perfectly healthy honey bee colonies are suddenly left to their demise with no traces of what has occurred. The worker bees responsible for maintaining the entire structure of the colony simply vanish without a trace. Akin to something from a sci-fi movie, no bodies are found to give insight or aid in the investigation of their mysterious disappearance. Officials have dubbed this threat as Colony Collapse Disorder, also known as CCD. To add to the eeriness of their vanishing, they have left a full box of honey, their pollen, capped brood, and their queen with an insufficient number of worker bees to carry on and support the colony. The most curious of things about this occurrence is the fact that wax moths, hive bees, and nearby honey bees seem to avoid what appears to be a viable source of food (Ellis, 2018).

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The United States Department of Agriculture asserts that Colony Collapse Disorder has been plaguing honey bees since 2006 (2007). Without having any way of investigating due to the lack of bodies, it comes as no surprise that the precise cause of this disturbing occurrence is not yet fully understood and may be far more complex than having single causation. The United States Environmental Protection Agency states that it is more likely a complex combination of problems that lead to the decimation of these entire colonies (2018). The United States Department of Agriculture theorizes that the significant causative circumstances leading to the bewildering decimation of these colonies can be divided into four general areas that may overlap creating a very complex issue that is difficult to ascertain (2018). Some of these theorized influences impacting the honey bee and contributing to Colony collapse disorder include pest and parasites, pathogens, poor nutrition, and pesticides. The reality could be an overlapping of these that creates a tangled web leading to the collapse affected colonies.

Hypothesis/Solution

Current research into the honey bee genome has shown considerable promise into our understanding of how they have evolved. Until recently it was believed that they originated from the family Colletidae in the Southern Hemisphere, but upon further analysis, it was concluded that their origins came from the family Melittidae (Cornell University,2019). This means that the relationship between bees and plants may have led to the evolutionary diversification that we see today. Genetic research has led to the mapping of 260 million DNA base pairs of the honey bee, Apis mellifera (National Institutes of Health, 2016). Their findings have indicated that the honey bee has evolved at a slower rate than that of the fruit fly or mosquito.

Additional sequencing and analyses of the honey bee, Apis mellifera, genome in 2014, resulted in the identification of an extra 5000 protein-coding genes (Grozinger, 2015). By understanding how they have developed into current times, we have a greater chance of understanding how the honey bee may or may not progress in the future. Genetic research and a bit of genetic manipulation could lend an evolutionary helping hand to keep our honey bee population from complete extinction in the future. Current progress in this area faces serious obstacles. The most significant impediments the improvement of the honey bee through genetic alteration faces is the stigmatism that has followed most genetic research. While some concern may be founded, many of these fear-based beliefs are the result of imagination with little to no understanding of the mechanisms involved or implication as to the loss of the honey bee. In a quickly changing world, we are faced with either seeking solutions or allowing things to take their natural course.

In truth, there will be repercussions to deal with either way. If we allow things to progress as they currently are, we could face the end of the traditional honey bee we have all come to know and love. If we alter them genetically, we could potentially create something spectacular or a monster to be reckoned with. 'Genetic engineering,' in a sense, of bees has already been done to some extent. Dr. Warwick Kerr interbred the western honey bee with the African honey bee in 1956 (Osterloff, 2018). This new subspecies became known as the 'Killer Bee' due to unforeseen inherited aggression. This aggression as it turns out is simply a defensive behavior exhibited when the colony feels threatened (Osterloff, 2018). These bees are better equipped to deal with the various factors creating Colony Collapse. Over time, without the presence of natural predators, colony's that invaded the island of Puerto Rico in 1994 some of these bees have seemed to have bred the aggression out (Osterloff, 2018). While Dr. Kerr seemed to have initially created a 'Frankenbee,' over time, it turns out that his experiment has taught us some valuable lessons to help improve our future honey bees and may have been a success.

Although breeders have managed to do astonishing things with the honey bee through selective breeding, such as creating gentle bees, increased honey production, improved coping with varroa mites, and better overwintering. The honey bee drones chromosomes, like all other, Hymenoptera, is haploid with worker and queen bees chromosomes being diploid(Burlew, 2018). This is where selective breeding falls short as a solution. The moment the queens from these controlled breeding programs lose these traits within a few generations when allowed to breed with an open stock (Burlew, 2018).

Stakeholders/Responsible Parties

There is not a human on our planet that is not affected in some way by the honey bee. From honey to agricultural pollination, to biomedical research, and many of the products such as candles and cosmetics the honey bee is imperative to human. The honey bee is researched for its social behavior to ascertain how genes regulate behavior via the of the central nervous system and brain development (National Institutes of Health, 2016). The honey bee genome may provide insight into immunity, allergic reactions, antibiotic resistance, mental health, longevity and diseases of the X chromosome, immune response, and aging (National Institutes of Health, 2016).

Global Issues and Solutions

Honey bees are indigenous to the Middle East, Africa, and Europe and have become established in bionetworks around the globe due to human activities. The honey bee has been declared as the world’s most significant pollinator in natural ecosystems due to an unparalleled investigation that collected data, from 80 plant-pollinator interaction networks, from around the world (University of California - San Diego, 2019). After gathering this information, the honey bee, Apis mellifera, was identified as the one species to most frequently visit naturally occurring flowering plants worldwide (University of California - San Diego, 2019) In the spring of 2008, Europe witnessed the worst honey bee die off. Millions of honey bees across Europe were lost (Warner, 2018). The countries of France, the Netherlands, and Germany witnessed the devastation. Germany took the most substantial hit, declaring a national emergency in the face of such massive losses (Warner, 2018). The mass destruction of millions of honey bees forced the European agriculturalists reevaluate their agricultural practices. Hundreds of studies have examined the impacts of neonicotinoid pesticides and their connections to colony collapse disorder (Warner, 2018).

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