‘$20m to save a single hive’: What’s behind the extinction crisis?

Everyone is familiar with how much electricity the average American uses, but what about the energy they consume to pollinate crops?

Back in the late 1960s, growers struggling to develop new varieties of flowers as the number of insect pests declined needed a break from chemicals that have been used to control them. The discovery of honeybees led to a new class of insecticides which boosted crop yields, but exposed the bugs to harmful chemical stresses.

These struggles set the stage for a more productive food system, with farmers using chemicals targeted at insect pests, rather than at the honeybees themselves. Now, with the emergence of a class of mosquitoes called Aedes aegypti, we find ourselves facing another threat: breeding mosquitoes.

It turns out that predatory insects such as moths and wasps actively control the mosquito population in soil. Microbes that have the same requirements as other animals, however, can’t do it by themselves. But they can develop a set of necessary enzymes and genes that respond to different agricultural chemicals and, unlike the moths, is constantly growing its numbers to keep up with the demand.

Indeed, in many parts of the world moths have emerged as a effective and cost-effective way to supplement insecticides and pest control. Honey bees, on the other hand, have apparently found that a little, well, nicotine was better.


Moth larvae live much longer than honey bees, as their legs do not sprout until around four weeks after hatching. This means that the generation (of a moth or wasp species) of insects that take place in the wild is much longer than those caused by commercial production of honey bees. As a result, moths spend as much time outside as the bees, and they expend quite a bit of energy.

Given the resources that they spend in doing so, it’s hardly surprising that they become infected with viruses. Over time, they learn which insecticides to avoid and how to reach their offspring with the fewest susceptibilities.

At the same time, they also change their metabolism in response to the presence of mites and fungus, disrupting the immune system and weakening the host over time. In response, honey bees go on a starvation diet, eating as little as possible and increasing their weight-to-weight ratios, a process known as ‘milking’ of resources. These changes appear to compensate for their reduced ability to survive in the wild, allowing them to make the same amount of honey as they did before.

An increasing share of the energy available to honey bees comes from honeycomb sugars, which is why they must go on a diet.

The blueish-green partially chlorinated starch that enters the honeycomb comes from carbon dioxide and water molecules which are released at low temperatures, allowing the proteins to be broken down and the starch to be excreted. Moth larvae on the other hand, don’t get that much glucose in the first place, so they’re unlikely to excrete much of it. Moth larvae instead need sugars from the yeast cells that grow within the lysosomes in their guts and drink whatever sugar is available, even if the yeast cells are left in the nest.

Unlike honey bees, however, they don’t run out of energy. Their nutrient stores are sufficient to keep them alive long enough to grow into adults, and as a result they can continue to defend their nests. This phenomenon has driven the emergence of moths that are able to protect their nests, which in turn allows them to breed more efficiently.

Although honey bees are more efficient at producing honey, their energy surplus from producing honey goes towards producing a substantial amount of bovine serum, a solid that farmers use to sterilise livestock slaughterhouses. This second product is used around the world by both government agencies and companies, though the US Food and Drug Administration only allows it to be mixed with vermiculite to disinfect the metal surfaces and human skin, and only up to 10 per cent of its total output.

The main advantage of purifying bovine serum is that it is needed to protect cattle from bacteria that can cause fatal diseases, but the fibre in its constituent minerals is chewed and excreted by cattle, bees and other insects. This generates much of the food that they eat and, as a result, bees actually produce more of it.

This means that bovine serum is also essential for bees to survive and to produce a sufficient supply of other food for the hive, including food for the workers that keep the structure going.

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