The Trouble with Beekeeping in the Anthropocene

August 12, 2013

Editor’s Note:  With respect to proposals to ban neonicotinoids, the article explains that “most scientists agree it wouldn’t solve the problem. (And getting rid of neonicotinoids would have unpredictable consequences for agriculture—the  pesticides were adopted in part because they are considered safer for mammals,  including human beings.)”

From: Time

The beepocalypse is on the cover of TIME, but it looks like managed honeybees will still pull through. Wild bees—and wild species in general—won’t be so lucky  in a human-dominated planet

By Bryan Walsh

I’ve written this week’s cover story for the magazine, on the growing threat  to honeybees. You can read it (with a subscription) over here. The short version: beginning nearly a decade ago,  honeybees started dying off at unusually and mysteriously high rates—this past  winter, nearly one-third of U.S. honeybee colonies died or  disappeared. At first this appeared due to something called colony collapse disorder (CCD); hives would be abandoned without warning, with bees seemingly leaving honey and intact wax  behind. The apocalyptic nature of CCD—some people really thought the  disappearance of the bees indicated that the Rapture was nigh—grabbed the public’s attention. More  recently, beekeepers have been seeing fewer cases of CCD proper, but honeybees keep dying and bees keep collapsing. That’s bad for our food system—bees add at  least $15 billion in crop value through pollination in the U.S. alone, and if  colony losses keep up, those pollination demands may not be met and valuable crops like  almonds could wither.

More than the bottom line for grocery stores, though, the honeybee’s plight  alarms us because a species that we have tended and depended on for thousands of  years is dying—and we don’t really know why. Tom Theobald, a beekeeper and  blogger who has raised the alarm about CCD, put that fear this way: “The bees are just the beginning.”

(PHOTOS: The  Bee, Magnified: Microscopic Photography by Rose-Lynn Fisher)

But while we don’t now we exactly what causes CCD or why honeybees are dying  in larger numbers, we do know the suspects: pesticides, including the newer  class of neonicotinoids that seem to affect bees even at very low levels;  biological threats like the vampiric Varroa mite; and the  lack of nutrition thanks to monocultures of commodity crops like wheat and corn,  which offer honeybees little in the way of the pollen they need to survive. Most  likely, bee deaths are due to a mix of all of those menaces acting  together—pesticides and lack of food might weaken honeybees, and pests like Varroa could finish them off, spreading diseases the  bees don’t have the strength to resist. Unfortunately, that means there’s no  simple way to save the honeybees either. Simply banning, say, neonicotinoids might take some of the pressure off honeybees, but most scientists agree it  wouldn’t solve the problem. (And getting rid of neonicotinoids would have  unpredictable consequences for agriculture—the pesticides were adopted in part because they are considered safer for mammals, including human beings.)  Honeybees are suffering because we’ve created a world that is increasingly  inhospitable to them.

Still, for all the alarm, honeybees are likely to pull through. As I point  out in the magazine piece, beekeepers have mostly managed to replace lost  colonies, though at a cost high enough that some long-time beekeepers are  getting out of the business altogether. Beekeepers are buying new queens and  splitting their hives, which cuts into productivity and honey production, but  keeps their colony numbers high enough to so far meet pollination demands.  They’re adding supplemental feed—often sugar or corn syrup—to compensate for the  lack of wild forage. The scientific and agricultural community is engaged—see Monsanto’s recent honeybee summit, and the company’s work on a genetic  weapon against the Varroa mite. Randy Oliver, a beekeeper and  independent researcher, told me that he could see honeybees becoming a feedlot  animal like pigs or chickens, bred and kept for one purpose and having their  food brought to them, rather than foraging in the semi-wild way they live now.  That sounds alarming—and it’s not something anyone in the beekeeping industry  would like to see—but it’s also important to remember that honeybees themselves  aren’t exactly natural, especially in North America, where they were imported by  European settlers in the 17th century. As Hannah Nordhaus, the author of the  great book A Beekeeper’s Lament, has written, honeybees have always been much more dependent  on human beings than the other way around.

(WATCH: Are  Robotic Bees the Future?)

The reality is that honeybees are very useful to human beings, and species  that are very useful to us—think domesticated animals and pets—tend to do OK in  the increasingly human-dominated world we call the Anthropocene.  But other wild species aren’t so lucky—and that includes the thousands of  species of wild bees and other non-domesticated pollinators. Bumblebees have  experienced recent and rapid population loss in the U.S., punctuated by  a mass pesticide poisoning in Oregon this past June that led to the deaths of some 50,000 bumblebees. A 2006 report by the National Academies of Science concluded that  the populations of many other wild pollinators—especially wild bees—was trending “demonstrably downward.” The threats are much the same ones faced by managed  honeybees: pesticides, lack of wild forage, parasites and disease. The  difference is that there are thousands of human beings who make it their  business to care for and prop up the populations of honeybees. No one is doing  the same thing for wild bees. The supposed beepocalypse is on the cover of TIME magazine, but “you don’t hear about the decline of hundreds of species of wild bees,” says Jennifer Sass, a senior scientist at the Natural  Resources Defense Council.

That’s meant almost literally—we don’t hear them anymore. The plight of the  bees illustrates our outsized influence on the this planet as we reshape  it—consciously and not—to meet our immediate needs. But just because we have  this power doesn’t mean we fully understand it, or our impact on our own world.  We are a species that increasingly has omnipotence without omniscience. That’s a  dangerous combination for the animals and plants that share this planet with us.   And eventually, it will be dangerous for us, too.

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