Something’s telling the bees of the world to buzz off. As we busily tend to our holiday purchases – which of course include our beloved jar of honey – few of us realize that these jars are becoming more difficult to produce, and may be more difficult come by in the not-so-distant future.

Around the world, the honey-making insects have been decreasing in number, year by year, at an alarming rate. Such a tragedy isn’t just stinging the beekeepers, whose livelihoods depend on bees, but is also affecting global agriculture.

And there’s more at stake than just mere honey production. Bees’ handiwork assists in the growth of a myriad of foodstuffs. In fact, millions of honeybees are depended upon to pollinate plants and crops, which produce a quarter of the food consumed by Americans.

According to an article published in Science Daily last May, beekeepers across the United States lost more than 40 percent of their honeybeecolonies from April 2014 to April 2015, up from the previous year’s 34 per cent. These figures are the result of an annual cross-country
survey, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and conducted by Bee Informed Partnership with the Apiary Inspectors of America. The survey asked commercial and small-scale beekeepers to track the health and survival rates of their honeybee colonies in an attempt to determine the best way to manage the decreasing bee population. This decrease – which has been ongoing for nine consecutive years – even has a name: Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

More than 6,000 beekeepers, who manage 400,000 colonies from all 50 states, responded to the survey in October 2014. These beekeepers are responsible for nearly 15 percent of the nation’s estimated 2.74 million managed honeybee colonies.

The total economic value of honeybee pollination is said to range from $10 to $15 billion each year in the US alone.

A common problem among small beekeepers – those who manage fewer than 50 colonies – is the varroa mite, a lethal parasite, which is able to spread between colonies. Beekeepers, environmental groups and some scientists also point an accusing finger at an insecticide known as neonicotinoids, or neonics – which is used on crops, such as corn, and on plants used in lawns and gardens. The toll this product has exacted is being taken seriously enough that the Environmental Protection Agency is examining a series of studies on the insecticide and its effects on bees. The agency’s findings are expected to be completed by year’s end. The issue has even caught the attention of administrators at the White House, who have formed a task force to study the problem. In the interim, some lawn and garden retailers have been reducing use
of neonics.

Just north of the border, the problem is even worse – much worse, in fact. In Ontario, Canada, bee losses have been severe over the last few winters, measuring an astounding 58 percent in 2013-2014. The decreases have been blamed on a combination of extreme cold, mites, disease, and pesticides used on crops.

Bees on the Roof

While the looming bee crisis has experts scrambling for a solution, some private individuals and companies are taking matters into their own hands.

A posh hotel is doing its part to increase the bee population. On the roof of the downtown Fairmont Royal York in Toronto, about 300,000 bees perch in six hives that produce anywhere between 500 and 900 pounds of honey per year. The hotel offers the honey to its guests, and uses it in its recipes.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s headquarters also recently installed hives on the rooftops in Toronto and Montreal. Vancouver Police will build two hives at its headquarters.

Meanwhile, across the pond in England, the BBC reported that in in January 2014, there were not enough honeybees to pollinate crops in more than half of European countries. And the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) found that more than 14 percent of England’s honeybee colonies died over the winter. Nearly 90 percent of the UK’s apple crop and 45 percent of its strawberry crop relies on wild bees and managed honeybees, which is a billion dollar economy there.

The BBKA’s annual survey of beekeepers across Great Britain showed the losses were up from nine percent last year, but lower than the year before, at one third. Normal losses are about 10 percent. The association blames “poor and variable weather, pesticides, bee diseases and parasites such as the varroa mite and starvation.”

Booming Biofuels

To make matters worse, demand for the little honey-making insects has grown, while their numbers shrink.

Europe is experiencing a boom in biofuels, say reports, which rely heavily on bees to do their pollination in ever-growing numbers. The boom is reportedly the result of the EU renewable fuel directive, which requires that 10 percent of transport fuel must come from renewable sources by 2020.

For farmers, this means they need to plant one-third more “oil” crops, like soybeans, oil palm, oilseed rape and sunflowers – all which require ramping up the number of bees, which simply aren’t there.

According to the journal Plos One, Great Britain has only a quarter of the bees they need – a deficit of seven billion honeybees.

Producing Spiritual Honey

All this perhaps gives us something more to think about as we look at that little jar of honey on the festive holiday table this Rosh Hashanah. Millions, or perhaps billions, of honeybees came together to create that sweet liquid which we all savor and which has become such an integral part of our beautiful holiday season – and it is now becoming tougher than ever to do that.

We know that the honey on Rosh Hashanah symbolizes our hopes for a “sweet” New Year. But there’s more: bees and the Jewish people are alike in many ways.

We are stronger, healthier, and able to accomplish more if we are unified, instead of by ourselves. There’s little we can accomplish when we work alone. When we combine our efforts and work together, our potential is exponentially greater. And our “hives” are our communities and synagogues, where we assemble and blend together into a collective unit.

The honeybee teaches us that we must come together and work towards a holy purpose – just as the bees come together and produce their precious honey which graces our holiday table. We do this by building vibrant communities and working together to learn and observe the Torah, producing the pure sweetness of genuine spirituality and Gdliness.

And, like bees, we Jews can affect the world only if our numbers stay strong. When our numbers decrease, our ability to produce our spiritual “honey” is compromised, and the entire world suffers.

May everything go well next year for our little busy bee friends, buzz’man hazeh!