On Tuesday morning, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced it will provide $3 million to help the one animal that will make or break U.S. food prices: bees.
Commercial honeybees pollinate an estimated $15 billion worth of the nation's agricultural produce each year, as reported by The Associated Press on Tuesday. Bees and other pollinators account for one out of every three bites of food Americans consume.
But over the last five years, around 30% of the U.S. honey bee population has vanished. Nearly one-third of the nation's honey bee colonies have disappeared.
If the USDA's move doesn't start mitigating the current, drastic rate of bee loss, Americans will see higher food prices and decreased food availability.
"Honey bee pollination supports… more than 130 fruits and vegetables that are the foundation of a nutritious diet," USDA Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said with Tuesday's announcement. "The future security of America's food supply depends on healthy honey bees."
Bees' Dramatic Decline
Farmers in the United States rely on commercial bees (raised on farms and shipped to farms) and their wild counterparts to naturally pollinate an estimated 80% of all food crops; they are additionally responsible for around 30% of the world's crops.
But pesticide use, habitat loss, and a phenomenon called "colony collapse disorder," in which honeybees disappear or die suddenly without explanation, have taken their toll on U.S. honeybees.
Many studies say pesticides containing neonicotinoids, which came into use in the 1990s due to their various benefits, are the main cause of bee population loss. Bumblebees exposed to the chemical in the lab, then released to forage in the field, experienced sharply reduced colony growth rates and produced 85% fewer queens to start new colonies. The chemical caused confusion in 30% of tested free-ranging honeybees, and they failed to return to the hive.
Another major pressure on the U.S. bee population is there are fewer wildflower fields and other natural habitats for them. More of that land is being used to grow fruits and vegetables – the very crops that need pollination – to meet increasing food demand.
So just as rapidly as the pollinator population declines, the demand for foods that depend on bees for pollination rises.