Colony Collapse Disorder attracted international attention in 2006, and honey bees are still making headlines. We hear that bees are dying (they are) they’re living on rooftops in New York City (also true), and they’re making runny, red honey using runoff from the maraschino cherry factory (check it out).
We hear about lethal pesticides, disappearing colonies, and declining populations, so how does this all fit together? As my mentor Marla Spivak explained in her talk at TedGlobal 2013, bee populations are suffering from multiple, interacting causes, including diseases and parasites, pesticides, and the poor nutrition provided by mono-crop agriculture and an increasingly flowerless landscape. For her complete explanation, check out Marla’s Ted Talk. Because the bee situation in the U.S. is also very relevant to my own work here in Mexico, I will provide a brief summary of what’s up with our bees, the way I understand it.
First, in the United States, our agricultural system is not pollinator friendly. As Marla explains, “since World War II, we have been systematically eliminating many of the flowering plants that bees need for their survival.” That is to say, farmers have been planting fewer nutrient-rich cover crops and using more and more pesticides. We are clearing “weeds” and planting lawns, and eradicating nutritious pollen sources like dandelions, clover, and alfalfa. Too often, our mega-yield mega-farms contain only one or two plant species. This leaves pollinators with the lamentable choice between corn with soy or soy with corn… at least until the corn is de-tasseled for pollination control, and then the choice is soy or soy.
Honey bees would not naturally choose to live in such nutrient-poor habitats, but we need bees to pollinate our crops. In the U.S., their vital pollination services increase crop values by $20 billion every year. So we load our bees on semi trucks and cart them around the country. Transporting bees allows us to maximize pollination efficiency and grow bigger and more bountiful vegetables, and renting colonies is the main source of income for many beekeepers in the U.S. Unfortunately, this practice also creates a breeding ground for parasites and diseases.
Remember Finals Week in college? When everyone is stressed out and run-down, and we fit twenty-five people in a house for a potluck, and we share food and germs, and everybody gets sick? When a high concentration of individuals occupies a small space, the rate of disease transmission increases. With 1.5 million honey bee colonies concentrated in the California almond fields in February, diseases spread easily. Limited access to nutritious food (all almonds, all month, for example) further increases the bees’ susceptibility. Exposure to pesticides has a similar effect.
In her Ted Talk, Marla comments that researchers from Penn State have recently found that every load of pollen a bee carries to its hive contains at least six detectable pesticides. Six!! Some of them, like the infamous neonicotinoids, produce a debilitating neurotoxin. At a high dose, this toxin is deadly. At a low dose, it disorients the foraging bee so she cannot find her home.
There is a general misconception that some mysterious disease might be sweeping through the bee population, killing our pollinators. This is not true, or at least it’s not the whole story. Some scientists suggest (my current adviser included) that the search for a novel disease may distract from the true cause of the problem. The pesticide problem, the sterile landscape, the high levels of diseases and the parasites that transmit them, these factors are complex and interacting, but they are not themselves anomalies, and none of them are news. As Dr. Rémy Vandame explains, Colony Collapse Disorder is not a novel phenomenon, but rather an acceleration of the decline that’s been in effect since World War II and is inextricably associated with our industrialized agricultural system.
Are the bees getting better? People ask me that a lot. The problem is, the problem is systemic, and the system hasn’t changed. Sadly, tragically, recent reports suggest the bees themselves are not improving. The humans, however, are making some progress. Here are a few of my favorite examples:
- Beekeeping initiatives like the University of Minnesota’s Bee Squad, which offers resources, education, and mentorship for beekeepers in the Twin Cities.
- Citizen science projects like University of Colorado’s The Bees Needs, which provides community members with native bee nest boxes and enlists their help in documenting the distribution and abundance of native bee populations.
- Art projects like Sarah Hattaon’s Honey Bee Mandalas, which calls attention to pesticide kills in a striking and creative way
- Web resources like the Honey Bee Suite site, which provides a community forum for beekeepers and bee enthusiasts alike, addressing environmental themes and practical beekeeping predicaments
- Organizations like the Xerces Society, which fosters native pollinator education and research, teaching people what to plant to preserve the pollinators in their area.
- Meanwhile, organic farms demonstrate that clean farming is possible
- …and sometimes even the government gets on board. In April, the European Union placed a two-year restriction on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides.
The reality is quite frightening, but the possibilities are also great. From a research perspective, there’s a lot to be done. The University of Minnesota, for its part, is currently working to develop bee-friendly bee lawns, identify harmful pesticides, document native bee populations, and continue to develop a “hygienic” bee highly capable of detecting and eradicating disease in the brood. Here at Ecosur in Chiapas, we’re also working with native bees, monitoring the presence of GMO pollen in bee colonies, encouraging educated selection of locally-adapted queens, and supporting beekeepers with training and resources.
As Marla concludes in her TedTalk, no matter who and where you are, helping the bees (native and honey) is as simple as planting flowers. A mosaic of pesticide-free native plants that flower throughout the season can provide bees with nutritious food, and better prepare them to face external challenges, like pesticides and disease.