Who runs the world?
Beyonce may rule the world in some of our minds but she is the least important Queen B when compared to, well, actual bees.
Bees can be a nuisance to people who are scared of them, especially if you’re apart of the 1% of people who are actually deadly allergic to them. Due to this, conversations about bees are usually negative. But when we walk into a grocery store, what do we see? Endless mounds of shiny apples, violent red tomatoes, striped watermelons, crisp cucumbers, raspberries, amongst dozens of other fruits and vegetables. Besides the farmers and hard-working Mexicans, who’s responsible for the production of most of this food? Millions of bees and other pollinators are. 75% of our crops worldwide are produced because of bees1 , butterflies, hummingbirds, and other animals. Bees don’t just fill our lives with food. Their honey, pollen, wax, propolis, and jelly can be found on the ingredients list of hundreds of cosmetics, medicinal, household cleaners, and other products.
Domesticated honeybees enable the production of least 90 commercially grown crops in North America and contribute more than $15 billion to our economy². Bees mean big business – the yearly value of crops produced globally that are directly affected by pollinators is somewhere from $235 billion to $577 billion.
What bees do for us is just a drop in the ocean when considering what they do for the health of ecosystems. They play a crucial role in species diversity, the stability of the ecosystem, and how it evolves through time.
About 80% of flowering and tropical plants rely on bee and insect pollination in order to reproduce3
Bees and plants have developed this fragile, complex, interdependent relationship over the course of millions of years.
The honeybee is an essential part of ecosystem, economic, human, and agricultural wealth – most importantly for sustaining the world’s natural life cycle.
You may be thinking, why the hell should I care when there’s climate change, wild fires, drought, and antibiotic resistance to be worrying about? Well, I know we all like food (I might like it too much), some of us like makeup, and I know most of us like flowers, soaking in beautiful landscapes and seeing its unique animals. But, get ready for the buzz kill because there is a growing problem that may limit all of these things in different ways.
Colony Collapse Disorder or ‘CCD’
In 2006 there were unknown causes resulting in rapid losses of western honeybee colonies throughout North America, the symptom was then named ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’. According to an article published by top bee researchers, titled Colony Collapse Disorder: A Descriptive Study, CCD is characterized by three specific symptoms: 1. The rapid loss of adult worker bees from colonies affected as shown by weak or dead colonies with more brood (baby) populations than adult bee populations, 2. A distinct lack of dead worker bees, both within and surrounding the affected hives; and 3. The slow infestation of hive pests, such as small hive beetles and wax moths4.
Figure source: beeinformed.org
U.S. beekeepers lost 44% of bees in 2015-16 and worse colony die-offs are happening in the summer when bees are supposed to be the healthiest5. “Some winter losses are normal and expected. But the fact that beekeepers are losing bees in the summer, when bees should be at their healthiest, is quite alarming” says Dennis vanEngelsdorp (one of the worlds foremost and respected bee scientists). Scientists note that there has been an increasingly faster paced pollinator and bee colony losses throughout recent years. Hell yeah this is alarming…
Many scientists and beekeepers don’t know the single cause of CCD. However, many believe bee colony die-offs are happening because of a soup of stress factors. The ingredients of the soup being:
- Parasites such as the Varroa destructor mite which invade hives and basically feed off of living bees and their babies. They carry diseases and can easily spread it throughout the hives. Almost one-hundred percent of managed honeybee colonies are affected by the mites and they all depend on pharmaceutical treatments to treat their colonies. If you choose to search pictures of these little bastards, BEWARE: THEY ARE SCARY.
- Pesticides such as neonicotinoids are the most widely used insecticide in the U.S. and around the globe, essentially causing bees to act like they’ve just drank 20 shots of vodka, affecting their nervous systems, disorienting their abilities to learn sources of food, impacting their flight directions, decreasing their abilities to fight off infections and when in direct contact, leaving them to die before they can make it home.
- Lack of genetic diversity due to queen bees having a limited number of mates, lowering the chances of colonies surviving.
- Poor nutrition due to lack of diverse food sources and bees being trucked to many parts of the country to pollinate only one kind of crop (monoculture agriculture) which provide very low quality of pollen and nectar.
- Climate change causing flowers to bloom earlier then usual, making pollinators arrive late and having less chances of finding enough food for the season.
To put all this into perspective and describe the shit-storm that bees are flying through right now, think about having the flu. When we get the flu our heads hurt, our bodies ache, our buggers run down our face and we just look/feel like complete shit.
We look in our fridge and realize we ate all of our food the week before so we have to fix ourselves up to go to the grocery store. But wait, if we live in a food desert (which most of us do) we are forced to travel great distances to get to the grocery store. After traveling several miles, feeling weak, groggy, and hangry we finally make it to the grocery store.
Once inside, we can’t wait even five minutes before stuffing an apple into our mouths. Doused in pesticides, this apple triggers drunk-like symptoms making our nervous systems go completely wack-o. What was already a difficult task of finding food, just turned into a treacherous one now that we can barely walk straight and probably won’t find our way back home.
But wait, we also have a huge, rabbit sized parasite on our shoulder sucking our blood and absorbing the very last nutrients in our body (Varroa destructor mite).Trying to get to the grocery store and back home again is damn near impossible in these conditions and only the strong ones will actually make it through.
So of course I will never actually know what bees go through and we can only imagine how they are physically feeling. But, I do know next time I have the flu or complain about going out to get food, it’s the bees that I will be giving props to.
Due to these deadly factors, (pesticides believed to be the main culprit) bees are getting world-wide attention. A report sponsored by the United Nations drawing on about 3,000 scientific papers found that about 40% of invertebrate pollinators (like bees and butterflies) are facing extinction6. This could severely threaten our world food supply, delicate relationships that pollinators share in ecosystems around the world, and the amount of biodiversity in any given area.
Without bees, our food production would have to shift to crops that don’t require pollination by animals/insects such as foods like carrots and potatoes. That would mean that our countries high economic value from monocrop agriculture production would seriously decline and the impacts would be socio-economically devastating. Transition to crops that don’t require bee pollination would be impossible for almond farmers in California, grapefruit farmers in Florida, Apple producers in New York, and many other big-businesses around the country.
Source: National Geographic (http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2015/05/building-bees/transport-map)
This graphic shows the sobering reality of the way that we so desperately rely on bees in order for our lives to be filled with nutritious food and overflowing grocery stores. If you noticed, avocados are on the list of commercial crops that wouldn’t exist without bee pollination. So, as much as this post is screaming ‘Save the Bees!’ it is also a post that’s screaming ‘Save the Avocados!’ (I really don’t want to imagine a world without avocados because I might cry). Honeybees also pollinate coffee crops, so for those of you who need coffee to survive the morning and your day at work (pretty much 80% of Americans), you should really bee worried. All of us should be worried because this is what our grocery stores would look like without bees:
Source: HuffingtonPost (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/06/17/store-without-bees_n_5500380.html)
Pretty scary shit, especially for those of us who eat plant-based diets.
Now that you have an idea of what is going on with our hard-working pollinators, you might be thinking:
What the hell are we doing about this problem?
Last year Obama proposed a plan to help our poor honeybee populations. The hopeful plan aimed to drastically decrease the amount of honeybee colony losses over the next decade and even help Monarch Butterfly populations grow while restoring around 7 million acres of land which can potentially act as a ‘pollinator paradise’. The Obama administration hopes to accomplish this by giving more money to honeybee research, investigate pesticides and their impacts, rethink the way government landscapes are managed, and help educate the public on the importance of our pollinators. Though all of these things sound really nice, they probably will not get done.
Some scientists are turning to ways of improving the genetics of honeybees and making more healthier, stronger bees that can potentially fight off the impacts of Colony Collapse Disorder. They are doing this by genetically engineering honeybees through artificial insemination7. If that sounds weird to you, trust me it sounds weird to me too and sounds more like something that is only done in a sci-fi movie.
Just last month, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed to prohibit the use of pesticides that are harmful to bees when crops are in bloom and bees are providing pollination services for big crop growers. After years of pressure from environmentalists and beekeepers for not acting on the problem, the EPA released a report in January admitting that neonicotinoids harm pollinators directly and at sub-lethal levels. 20 years too late, environmentalists and the writers of Mother Jones claim.
Many are taking matters into their own hands and there are hundreds of non-profit organizations around the world that are helping to educate and fight for ending rapid honeybee losses. List of organizations and initiatives that are helping to combat the honeybee crisis:
- The Honeybee Conservancy : a non-profit established in response to the bee crisis. They have bee sanctuaries and contribute to research, outreach, and educational programs.
- The Bees in Decline : a Greenpeace campaign that aims to protect bees by banning toxic pesticides and encouraging ecological agriculture. Supporters please sign their petition!
- Environmental Justice Foundation : Their campaigns raise public, industry, and political awareness of the world’s most destructive pesticides, which includes the bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides to encourage social and environmental sustainability.
- Avaaz (“voice” in different languages) : A global petition available in several different languages that urges the ban of neonicotinoid pesticides to prevent our global food supplies from being threatened. Launched only 3 years ago, they have had over 3 million signatures worldwide so far (pretty damn incredible).
- BeesFree.Inc : A mission to improve the understanding of the overall affects of CCD while improving the health and well-being of honeybees through research and innovative products.
- Native Seed Search : A non-profit based in Tucson, AZ dedicated to conserving the rich agro-biodiversity of the arid Southwest which improves the health of native pollinators and encourages sustainable farming practices.
This is only a short list of the many initiatives that are happening locally and around the world, if you are genuinely interested in the matter (which I’m hoping you are) just search the internet and you can find so many more pretty damn cool organizations. For those of you I hopefully haven’t bored to death and are thinking:
What the hell can I do about this problem?
- Cut-out the use of pesticides/insecticides: Using these products in your garden or yard impacts the pollinators in your area. Weed killers such as Monsanto’s Roundup are popular products because they are cheap and easy to use. However, it has detrimental impacts on the environmental and human health that come at an expensive price. Pesticides like this can create super weeds and pests that become immune to them8. Switch to safer alternatives when trying to get rid of pests and/or weeds (a later post is to come on this topic).
- Plant ‘bee-friendly’ plants and flowers: depending on where you live, there are native plants that you can grow to help pollinators. To help find what plants and flowers are best for pollinators in your region you can use the planting guide provided by ‘Pollinator Partnership’.
- Support urban farming and sustainable agriculture: It is clear that we need to promote food production that emphasizes biological diversity and doesn’t poison our land, water, and communities. Support community gardens, create your own garden, and be conscious of where your food is coming from when you’re shopping at the grocery store. Supporting traditional practices of food production, including soil fertility maintenance, crop rotation, habitat management, and water efficiency is also critical when considering sustainable agriculture.
- Buy ‘organic’ if and when you can: If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard someone say how much more expensive food grown organically is compared to food grown conventionally, I probably wouldn’t need to have a job. It is true that organic foods are generally more expensive, but most organic fruits and vegetables cost the same, if not sometimes cheaper than conventional produce depending on the season/availability. This is especially true if you shop at farmers markets or natural foods grocery stores. I do understand that some people can’t afford organic food or may not have access to it (which is an entirely separate issue for another post), but it is important to not assume that organic food is always more expensive. This is discussed in an interesting article ‘Busting the “Organic is expensive myth‘. Organic food helps maintain healthy soils and the earth’s water supply and avoids chemical pesticides that are contributing to the deaths of our bee colonies.
- Sign Petitions & Research: Many of us probably think that signing online petitions ‘won’t make a difference’ but if we all thought that, the guy who killed Cecil the Lion probably wouldn’t be the most hated guy in America (well… after that other guy who’s name starts with a ‘D’). ‘Research’ sounds boring to some, but it is important to be well-informed about issues that are affecting the world and our children (so really who gives a fuck about what Kendall Jenner was wearing).
- Stop thinking that bees are out to sting you: Bees are just doing their own thing, flying around trying to collect enough pollen/nectar from flowers to bring back to their hives to support themselves and their colony. They don’t live to commit suicide by stinging us, so if one comes near you just remain calm and still (life-hack: gently blowing some air toward it will persuade it to bee-gone). Eventually the bee will carry on if you don’t try swatting at it which can make it angry and sting you (If I could I would sting someone if they tried ending my life too). It is also important to know the difference between honeybees and wasps (those fuckers can do some real damage).
- Support local beekeepers: Many beekeepers sell their honey at farmers markets and you may even find locally produced honey at natural grocery stores. Supporting beekeepers who do not treat their hives with any chemicals and ensure sustainably produced honey is important. Buying ‘raw’ organic honey is also important for your own personal health. Honey in its ‘raw’ pure state contains all of the enzymes and nutrients for maximum health benefits, whereas store bought pasteurized honey is absent of all nutrients lost in the heating process. It is also very likely that commercially produced honey (imported from China) is just a mix of different sweeteners like high fructose corn syrup, cheap additives which are probably not safe since honey is not regulated, as well as being contaminated with chloramphenicol, heavy-metal toxins and a brew of agro-chemicals, including some illegal animal antibiotics, which are deadly to a small percentage of the population8. Due to these cheap production methods, cheap honey dominates American grocery stores, putting many American bee-keepers out of business.
8. Share what you know with friends, family and your community: Instead of talking about the weather, celebrities, sports, politics or other mundane things, bring up colony collapse disorder or how important our bees are and help inform people about the problem! Bring it up at a party (you might get weird looks but who gives a shit), bring it up in class, bring it up at dinner, bring it up to your coworkers, bring it up on your social media outlets, just talk about it. By informing people of this dire topic will help them make better choices for their gardens, yards, personal health, political candidates, and help achieve environmental sustainability.
Honeybees and all pollinators around the world need us to start listening and giving a shit. So next time you see a bee, don’t try swatting it. Instead take a moment to appreciate the ecosystem services they provide and how they make our lives better…And if you can’t find it in your heart to make this about saving the bees, make it a cause for saving the avocados, a cause for saving the coffee, a cause for saving the Almond milk, or whatever food you can’t live without — because if all pollinators continue to die, we will be forced to do so.
- “Pollinators” Pollinators Home Page – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Accessed 31 May 2016.
- Holdren, John P. “Announcing New Steps to Promote Pollinator Health.” The White House. The White House, 19 May 2015. Web. Accessed 31 May 2016
- “Why Are Bee Colonies Vanishing? [5 Lines, 5 Dots, 1 Curve].” BEAUTIFUL BIOLOGICAL QUESTIONS. Food and Agriculture Organization, n.d. Web. Accessed 31 May 2016.
- “Colony Collapse Disorder: A Descriptive Study.” PLOS ONE:. PLOS, n.d. Web. 31 May 2016.
- VanEngelsdorp, Dennis. “A National Survey of Managed Honey Bee 2014–2015 Annual Colony Losses in the USA.” Bee Informed Partnership. Eastern Apicultural Society, n.d. Web. Accessed 31 May 2016.