I’ve been spending more time than usual perusing online articles about bees, and something rather horrifying has come to my attention. No, it’s not all the articles about colony collapse disorder, massive bee die-offs and how “without the honey bee we’ll all die horribly”. Well, it is that, sort of, but I’m already familiar with those issues.
What I find really frightening is the articles themselves, how they take an extremely complex situation and try to paint it in black and white. They do this so people will click on the links and pay them money. They make up crazy headlines and they oversimplify the issues so that it doesn’t “go over their reader’s heads”. They think people are too stupid for accurate information.
The thing about dumbing down your writing, is that you basically dumb down your audience. These types of articles are full of ridiculous comments by people reciting other dumb headlines they picked up from somewhere else. Here’s the thing; These people aren’t dumb, they are just fed a constant drip of bad information and eventually they can’t tell the difference between facts and snazzy catchphrases. I have faith that most people are actually very smart, they just need to be properly informed.
This phenomenon of terrible media isn’t new, and it’s not specific to bees – nearly everything the media covers, is covered badly. However, this whole issue with Colony Collapse Disorder, honey bee losses, and native pollinator decline has really been poorly explained. You can barely scroll through a news site without reading something about bees, yet it’s extremely difficult to find a single article online that actually explains what’s going on.
I feel the effects of this misinformation every single day, when someone shares the Einstein quote: “If bees die, human society would follow in 4 years”, Tells me they want to become a beekeeper to save the honey bees (more on this further down) Or posts a meme that says “save the bees!” but has no idea how to actually help bees (and no plans to try).
So, here’s my little attempt to remedy the situation; a comprehensive explanation of the “Bee Crisis”. Bear with me, it’s an extremely complex issue, which is why it is rarely fully explained. This post is going to be long and a bit messy, but if you actually give a shoot about saving bees, it’s worth reading.
Fact #1: Bees pollinate a lot of the food in grocery stores (and that’s super important)
The BS articles are right about one thing, without bees (and other pollinators) we would be facing food scarcity the likes of which we’ve never seen before. A huge amount of produce items would be unavailable – squash, melons, apples, tomatoes, cucumbers, almonds – the list goes on, and without those products, many of your favorite packaged foods would be unavailable (juices, many granola bars, trail mix, etc.)
Sure, some of our most important staples would still be available – corn, wheat, beef, but if you consider how much more corn beef and wheat we would need to sustain our population, you can imagine the kind of chaos that might ensue – food prices would skyrocket, the poor would starve, we’d probably basically see a complete breakdown of the fabric of society. Things would be bleak. (And no, drone pollinators to replace bees is not a viable option, it’s a a fun science fair project for engineering students, but the cost alone of producing enough drones to replace all the bees, plus the logistics of manufacturing and fueling them, and repairing them when they break down makes them a very unlikely solution. Besides, didn’t they see that episode of Black Mirror?)
Something important to note here is that we are talking about what would happen if all bees and pollinators died out. Not just honey bees. Tomatoes, for example, are best pollinated by bumble bees, and squash attract squash bees and there are lots of other native insects (and birds and bats!) doing lots of pollinating. I’m not saying that honey bees aren’t important (the definitely are!), but one of the most important fact that most of these articles skim over is that:
Fact #2 Honey bees are not the only pollinators
There are 4,000 species of native bee in America, plus thousands of non-bee pollinators that include birds, bats, moths, butterflies, flies, wasps, and probably some critters I don’t even know about. All of these species plays an important role in our native ecology, and the rate at which we are destroying their populations is unacceptable.
Honey bees get the most media attention because, well, they give us honey. Humans and honey bees have had a special relationship for tens of thousands of years, and beekeeping is deeply entwined in the roots of American agriculture. They are also inextricably entwined with modern agricultural practices. Most commercial beekeepers in the US make their income by providing pollination services to industrial farms – that is, they load up all their bees on trucks, ship them to an almond orchard or blueberry farm, set up the hives there for a few weeks while the plants are in bloom, and then after the bloom they pack their bees up and take them to pollinate the next crop. This is a huge industry, and without it, our current industrial methods of producing almonds, blueberries, apples, and many other crops would be impossible.
Colony Collapse Disorder, and recent difficulties that have effected commercial beekeepers get a lot of press because they have significant economic impact on our agricultural system. However because Honey Bees are not native to the US, honey bee loss does not have much ecological impact. (Although, many of the things causing honey bee die offs are also causing native bee die offs, which does have a major ecological impact, as I’ll discuss later)
Fact #3 We are talking about bees in two separate but related systems – Native Bees that are part of our Native Ecology System, and Honey Bees caught up in our Industrial Agriculture System.
Both systems are important for humans. Both systems rely on bees. Bees in both systems are facing hardship. Many of the same contributing factors are effecting bees in both systems. It’s easy to see how people get the two muddled up, however it’s important to understand the differences between the two, because we can’t solve either if we don’t understand their differences.
(I also added a column for honey bees managed by hobbyists and small-scale beekeepers, as I think it’s notable that not all honey bees are a part of the industrial agriculture system, yet none of them really belong in our native ecology)
|Native Ecology:||Industrial Agriculture :||Small-scale Beekeeping|
|Includes 4,000 species of bee and other pollinators||Relies on Apis mellifera, a non-native species of bee||Relies on Apis mellifera, a non-native species of bee|
|Population reduction could result in the extinction of entire species||Population reduction causes financial hardship for commercial beekeepers and farmers – could potentially increase food costs slightly, but Apis mellifera is nowhere near danger of extinction||Population reduction causes inconvenience for beekeeping hobbyists – also causes hobbyists to import bees that are poorly adapted to their region|
|Supports all life||Supports the human population in the US||Supports recent demand for local honey, useful for education|
|An extremely complex, delicate system developed over millennia||An awkward, poorly functioning system developed over the last 100 years||A widely variable system developed over the last two centuries..|
|Is put in danger by many human practices, including industrial Ag.||Directly causes many of it’s own problems||Poor practices of both beekeepers and people in the area contribute to problems|
|Needs more advocates||Has the backing of gigantic corporations and the government||A rapidly growing hobby with a commercial industry to support it|
|Major problems: lack of forage, loss of habitat, chemical pollution from industrial sources and homeowners||Major problems: Varroa destructor, stress on bees caused by conventional practices, chemical pollution, “CCD” (which is basically where bees become so stressed due to many different factors that they abandon the hive)||Major problems: Varroa destructor, Poor beekeeping practices, lack of forage, Other pests and diseases|
You can see that while both Honey Bees and Native bees are struggling, it is the native bees that are in real danger here. Many new articles fail to differentiate between the two – giving people the impression that honey bees are going extinct, and that they might be able to help by becoming beekeepers. In reality, there are already lots of honeybees, beekeepers are just having a hard time keeping them healthy. Native bees, on the other hand, are at much greater risk of actually dying out, so setting out a few native bee houses and growing some forage plants would be a fantastic way to help.
All of this is not to diminish the importance of our agricultural system – it is, after all, how we feed our country. Unfortunately, a lot of the trouble with honey bees in industrial ag. is caused by the industry itself – overuse of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, stress on the bees, and high disease rates due to condensed populations. These practices also have an adverse effect on native bee populations – and you can add to the list that large monoculture farms destroy habitat and food resources for many species of native pollinator.
When we talk about “saving the honey bee” we’re really talking about “fixing our agricultural system” my opinion is that this is accomplished through a gradual shift to sustainable practices that don’t hurt the bees. Corporations measure success by income, and so as a default, any practices that allow them to produce more food with less investment is a good thing. Switching from cheap and convenient pesticides to expensive and complicated organic method of pest control would help the bees, but it hurts the company’s bottom line, which means it won’t happen – unless – we the people, exercise our consumer power, by not buying products that are not produced with sustainable methods. Then suddenly using pesticide hurts the company’s bottom line, and they are motivated to find sustainable methods.
This is why the number one thing I tell people to do when they say they want to help bees is to think about where their food comes from, and to source as much food as possible from local, sustainable farms.
That’s not to say that industrial agriculture is entirely to blame – more pesticides and herbicides are used in residential lawn care and landscaping than for agriculture.
Let me repeat that. American citizens use more pesticides and herbicides to make their gardens look nice than our big scary conventional agriculture industry uses to produce millions of tons of fruits and vegetables. So, please, think twice before you go for the bottle of “round-up”.
So where do small-scale beekeepers fit in?
One of my personal goals as a beekeeper is to breed a bee that is able to thrive in my particular region. This is an admittedly silly endeavor, since the European Honey Bee was never really meant to exist on this continent, and stubbornly raising them here isn’t really helping the local ecology.
However, I do believe that honey bees (and their keepers) have a role to play in moving toward a sustainable agriculture system. We are the middle-man. We are the ones who can balance the needs of a strong, agriculture system that can support out population with a healthy ecology that will support life for generations to come.
The great thing about all the press is that it’s making people want to make a difference. Perhaps the information out there is lacking, but the motivation is not, and that’s nothing to scoff at. If everyone who is moved by the “plight of the bees” took action (and by action, I mean taking a hard look at how your day to day decisions impact the world around you, and adjust them to more closely align with your values, not just fun stuff like putting some hives in your back yard) we would be looking at a brighter future.
My next post will discuss some more concrete ways that you can help both honey bees and native pollinators, which I am really excited for, but here’s a little preview: The absolute most important thing you can do is to keep yourself informed and share that information with others. If you take just a minute today to explain this issue to a neighbor, or share my post with a friend, it could make all the difference.