The Plight of the Honeybee: A Systems Problem

Honeybees are a critical part of our food production chain. They pollinate essential food crops around the world. In the United States alone they account for the annual pollination of crops valued at $15B, or 25% of the U.S. food harvest. Without their services our national food security would be seriously threatened.

Unfortunately, honeybees themselves are threatened. Since 2006 substantial numbers of honeybee colonies have disappeared. Over the last several years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the losses have amounted to an average of 30% of the hives each year. This represents a serious dent in the pollination capacity and places honeybees on a course with near total disappearance.

Already the problem of crop pollination in the face of a dwindling supply of pollinators is being creatively addressed by hive owners loading their healthy colonies onto tractor trailers and transporting them to the site of crops ready for pollination. The “bee trucks” move from crop site to crop site following the pollen production. Once on site with a crop ready for pollination the hives are set up to allow the bees out to do their work. This “solution” has its own set of problems from stressing the healthy bees to wrangling escaping swarms and in no way has it become a permanent answer to the problem of scarce pollinators.

As you might imagine there are a number of research efforts targeted to learning the cause of these disappearances. A substantial number — some estimates put it as high as 1/3 — of these are manifested in something known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). In this truly mysterious instance the hive is found to contain the queen, her brood of eggs, and the honey but very few or no live adults and no bodies of dead adult bees. The colony has largely disappeared. It is unclear whether the adult bees have relocated or died outside the hive and it is not possible to examine their remains to see if any “cause” might be found in them.

There are several theories behind the demise of honeybee colonies. Parasites like the Acarapis woodi or the Varroa destructor are suspects in this mystery. The Acarapis woodi is a microscopic mite that infests the trachea tissues of young bees. The adult females lay their eggs there and the adult mites penetrate the trachea of the bees to feed on the body fluids of the bees seriously weakening them.

The Varroa destructors infest the hive where the females penetrate the bees’ eggs sacks and lay their own eggs inside. When the developing bees break the egg sack the larvae and mother are released into the hive where they attach to adult bees and feed on their bodily fluids, weakening the bees and transmitting viruses that can harm the bees directly or cause the potential for birth defects like wing deformities to be passed on.

Other causes of the collapse of bee colonies are posited. A prime suspect is a class of pesticides called nicotinoids. These pesticides have largely replaced DDT and others. There are a variety of studies showing no correlation and strong correlations exist and the case for pesticide poisoning as the principle or a contributing cause of the honeybee disappearances is far from conclusively made.

In the end the quest for a cause is very likely to a group of concurrently interacting causes. Any solution will have to take these factors and their interactions into consideration. The only way to see the interactions and understand the relationships is from a systems point of view. Understanding the problem space and its causes is a systems problem.

Likewise, crafting a solution that deals with the problem without creating new — and arguably worse — problems in the process is a systems problem as well. Although the impending demise of the honeybee is not situated in the classic systems engineering space, it is clearly a systems problem crying out for a systems solution. It is an opportunity for the systems engineering community to bring to bear the power of the tools and methods to help solve an important and complex problem.

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