The insect is globally important for crop pollination, but human activity is causing the spread of pathogens that harm this bee species.
“There are a number of pathogens that infect bees,” explained Robert Owen, a researcher and beekeeper. “The malady that is causing concern is the mite Varroa destructor, originally native to Asia [and whose natural host is the Asian honeybee, Apis cerana], it has now spread globally.”
Commercial pollination has a led to large-scale movement of bee colonies. For example, 1.8 million honeybees were transported in 2016 to California for the commercial pollination of almond crops, and it is highly likely the colonies contained mites and pathogens.
“Short term interests and the pressure to reduce the cost of food crops has resulted in the overuse of pesticides, fertilisers and fungicides. The difficulty bees face long term is the complete lack of care that humans extend to them,” said Owen.
Poorly educated hobby beekeepers may also be responsible for the spread of pathogens.
“Some hobby beekeepers are very knowledgeable and responsible. Most however have neither the skills or experience, and sometimes the interest, to manage bee pathogens successfully,” said Owen.
Another human-driven factor outlined in the study was the carelessness in pesticide application that has led to an overuse of pesticides and antibiotic resistance in honeybee parasites.
The health of honeybees can be improved by introducing stronger regulation of the honeybee trade and educating of beekeepers.
“The problems facing honeybees today are complex and will not be easy to mitigate,” says Owen. “Until people accept responsibility for the environment and acknowledge that our actions are making the future a less attractive place in which to live, we are doomed to live in a less sustainable world.”
The European honeybee, Apis mellifera, is the most widely domesticated species of honeybee. Despite the name, it is thought to originate from eastern Africa.