I’m sure you all remember Dreamworks 2007 hit ‘The Bee Movie’, right? This flick has stayed pretty relevant due to meme culture, but I’m here to argue that it should stick in our minds for a very different reason: its message about how bad our world would look without bees.
*This is a guest piece by our good mate Maddi. A bee lover, constant ponderer, and fello short-ass - Maddi has some shit to say about Bees. As per, all views are her own, however in this case we have to agree! Wanna know more? You can find her here. Enjoy!
Shit You Should Care About… Bees
Despite being sugar-coated in animated gooeyness, an unbeelievable amount of puns, and a questionable interspecies relationship (seriously, why is this never talked about?!), The Bee Movie gives us an idea of just how dependent we are on these buzzy little pollinators.
But, unlike our good friend Barry the Bee, this flowerless future is not the result of bees taking us to court for stealing their honey. Bees worldwide, among other insect pollinators, are showing alarming declines in both species diversity and population levels, under the stressors of our modern world. The bee crisis we are currently experiencing is a result of our own actions, of human systems and behaviours, and if we do not wake up and smell the honey soon then we are essentially stinging ourselves in the foot. In other words? We’d be fucked.
One third of global food production depends on pollinators, of which honeybees make up the majority. If they disappear, then it’s bye-bye to fruits and veggies; to the plants that feed our livestock and supply us with meat and dairy; to the quintessential millennial breakfast of smashed avocado on toast and your morning coffee; to chocolate bars, roasted almonds and, if the health of grapevines start to deteriorate, then you can kiss your favourite wine goodbye too.
The importance of pollinators extends beyond just human food sources. These tiny little insects are vital to the health of wild ecosystems, supporting the growth of tropical rainforests, savannah grasslands and temperate deciduous forests. Their service provides food and shelter for other animals and contributes to the health of our entire planet. If bees continue to decline, such a disruption to the ecosystem would have far-reaching and hard-hitting consequences: The subsequent ripple effect would likely trigger additional declines or extinctions in dependent organisms, the altered composition of natural habitats would shake the very foundations that life is structured on and us silly humans would be struggling against food scarcity and skyrocketing prices.
But this isn’t just about the threat of, oh I don’t know, global starvation. This will also spell disaster for the ECONOMY folks. Since evaluating pollinator services based solely on commercial crops will grossly underestimate their total value, it is difficult to get an exact figure on this - but the monetary cost of crops affected by pollinators worldwide is estimated to be between US$235 billion and US$577 billion per year. Besides carrying half their body weight in pollen, it seems bees also have the weight of our entire ecological and economic survival stuffed into their little hind legs too.
In order to avoid catastrophe, we first need to understand what the problem is. So, what is all the buzz about anyway? What is actually happening to the bees? Why are they disappearing? And what can we do about it?
Since the late 1980’s, there have been startling drops in bee populations. This has been observed in domestic honeybee colonies across the world, largely attributed to a phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), where the worker bees of a hive mysteriously disappear leaving behind their queen, the young brood and a reserve of honey and pollen. We do not actually have an explanation for CCD yet, but it is believed to be the result of several interacting pressures, such as exposure to chemicals, parasites and climate change.
Following its official inception in 2006, CCD has been responsible for significant declines in managed bee populations, particularly in the United States, where beekeepers reported unusually high losses of 30-90 percent of their colonies. It is common for beekeepers to experience some losses in the winter, but this CCD-induced escalation has caused serious alarm and is the reason the ‘beepocalypse’ has become so well publicised.
Now, there is some confusion and contention over the current status of the bee crisis. The main dispute is that CCD appears to be on the decline, with honeybee numbers in the U.S. actually rising in recent years. But the issue is far from over. Firstly, this recovery is not because the problems have been solved, but is credited to beekeeping practices such as hive-splitting, where a healthy colony is divided in half and a second Queen is ordered online, resulting in two replenishing hives. This is an effective coping strategy for safeguarding commercial pollination and honey services, but it would be a grave mistake to assume that this means the end of the bee crisis. Sorry guys, but the solution is just not that black and white - or black and yellow?
CCD is not the sole explanation of the bee crisis, but simply a component of a much larger issue. The phenomenon has receded since its 2007 peak, but beekeepers are now struggling even harder against much more general die-offs, directly linked to the spread of disease and parasites, pesticide use, and habitat loss.
In order to safeguard global biodiversity, we cannot just attend to the consequences of the problem; we must address the source. Besides, honeybees are not the only pollinator we should be worried about.
Due to their familiarity, the western honeybee (Apis mellifera) has become the ‘poster child’ of the pollinators and the first (and often only) little critter that comes to mind when the issue of pollinator decline is brought up. In reality, there are over 20,000 species of bee and an array of other insect pollinators - including moths, beetles and butterflies - whose vital contribution to both wild and cultivated ecosystems goes largely unrecognized. These wild species are much harder to monitor than domesticated honeybee colonies, meaning that data on their population levels and direction of change is largely lacking.
From the studies we do have, the numbers reveal that wild pollinators are also experiencing sharp declines in both species richness and population count. In Europe, one in ten wild bee species is considered under threat of extinction, while one in four U.S. species are at risk. A mascot for pollinators worldwide, the more easily detected struggles of the honeybee serve as a warning sign (a ‘honeybee’ in the coal mine perhaps??) for losses in diversity and abundance on a much larger, and much more critical, scale.
There is no denying that insect pollinators, Barry the bee but many others too, are being chronically exposed to various, intense pressures by our modern world. Anthropogenic forces have caused an ecological shift on a local and global scale, and our entire agricultural system has quickly evolutionized into a monotonous, chemically-intensive powerhouse. There is not one single factor that is driving population declines, but a swarm of interacting stressors that are contributing to the crisis. Let’s dive into the big three.
The Big Three
Industrial agricultural practices
After WW2, our farming practices changed dramatically. The post-war technological boom introduced new and improved machinery to the agriculture industry, birthing a chemically-intensive system whose driving purpose is to maximise production and improve efficiency. This leaves little room for holistic consideration of the environment and long-term sustainability, introducing two major threats to bees: Monoculture crops and neonicotinoid pesticides.
Traditional farming methods (and perhaps those of the future) used cover crops as natural fertilizers to fix nitrogen in the soil, stop erosion and control weed growth. Not to mention they provide a more diverse and nutritionally rich diet for pollinators, with crops like clover and alfalfa being a particularly high-protein food source for bees. In contrast, modern industrial agriculture has shifted to the practice of monoculture farming: The cultivation of a single crop, only made possible through reliance on heavy machinery and the ubiquitous application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Plantation not only requires systematically uprooting diverse natural habitats - the flowering plants and nesting spots vital to pollinators survival - but replaces these landscapes with acres upon acres of only one or two plant species. This lack of biodiversity (in regards to both species richness and genetic diversity of the crop) means that the diet of both managed and wild pollinators is lacking in nutrition and availability, while food supply is dependent on the particular flowering time of bulk crops. In both the UK and the Netherlands, the observed decline in local plant diversity is occurring in parallel with the decline of bees, and is suggested to be indicative of a much wider trend.
Secondly, it’s not surprising that spraying our plants with something called ‘insecticides’ doesn’t spell good news for insect pollinators. The primary culprit here is a relatively new class of insecticides called neonicotinoids. Targeting the central nervous system of the bee, the neurotoxins can cause over-stimulation, paralysis and death. In sublethal doses, exposure undermines the immune system of the bee, reducing resistance to disease and parasites, while chronic exposure causes often detrimental confusion, implicating their ability to learn, forage and find their way home.
Neonicotinoids are commonly applied as seed treatments, which means that they are absorbed by the plant and become systemic, working through the plant tissues and into the pollen and nectar of the flower. Significant concentrations of insecticides are also found in wildflowers surrounding treated crops, often persisting in the soil and plant tissues for several years after their actual application. This poses another threat to wild pollinator species, several of whom do not build hives but nest underground, in this now-contaminated soil. When collected by honeybees, pollen laced with neonicotinoids is taken back to the hive to feed the colony.
Studies reveal that even low exposure during the larval stage can impair the learning capabilities of bees later in life. In a managed hive, beekeepers are able to tolerate and recover from low percentage losses, without it having a substantial effect on the health and productivity of the colony.
However for solitary bees and insects - which make up the majority of pollinator species - individual deaths have a much more critical impact as they also eliminate the possibility of the individual’s subsequent offspring and numbers will be much slower to recover.
2. Parasites and pathogens
Not only does the human movement of bees cause more stress than that across-campus sprint to hand in an assignment at 4:59pm, but it also facilitates the spread of parasites and pathogens. There are many parasites we should be concerned about, but the most serious of these is the Varroa mite, one of bees greatest foes. Originally only associated with the Asian honeybee (Apis cerana), human transportation of pollinators has allowed the aptly dubbed ‘Varroa Destructor’ to jump hosts to the Western honeybee, who is genetically unequipped to deal with this little fucker. Varroa acts by invading the bees brood cell and laying eggs on their larvae. In the safety of the closed cell, the hatched mites feed on the developing bee, weakening it considerably, but leaving it with enough strength so it can break out of the capping and release the mother mite and all her destructive babies. These parasites then travel throughout the hive, sucking the bodily fluids of adult bees, transmitting pathogens like deformed wing virus (DFV) and laying more eggs in an exponential cycle, often resulting in the death of the entire colony. That’s some horror movie shit right there. The combined effect of the invasive mites slow-sapping destruction and the diseases that they spread is a major cause of domesticated colony loss, particularly in Europe and North America.
This is perhaps the greatest existential threat posed to biodiversity worldwide (PSA: humans included), and bees are expected to suffer greatly from the predicted consequences of anthropogenic climate change. The increasing changes to earth’s weather patterns and the escalation of extreme events, such as storms, floods and droughts, will cause a major disruption to pollinator communities by endangering food supply and washing out species that nest underground. On top of this, rising temperatures and the loss of natural landscapes are decreasing bees habitat range, while facilitating the spread of parasites, which thrive in the heat.
3. Climate Change
The relationship shared by bees and plants is ancient, built over each of their evolutionary histories; their existences are intertwined, and each is dependent on the other for survival. This beautiful, symbiotic relationship is coordinated through environmental cues (such as temperature) which allow the two parties to synchronize their seasonal patterns and behaviour. Climate change, particularly rising temperatures, can quickly disrupt these long-standing relationships and throw their patterns out of time. If bees emerge from hibernation in the spring, but the prime pollination period of plants is either over or yet to begin, it will leave insects with limited or time-restricted food sources and the plants will suffer from poor pollination rates, potentially leading to the extinction of both.
Well, that’s the tea. Now here’s a spoonful of honey to help take the edge off.
What can YOU do about it?
Plant some shit!
Creating a wee flower oasis in your backyard is super beneficial to all your friendly neighbourhood pollinators, and will support your local ecosystem too. Not to mention it will brighten your place up a bit - a big win all around!
Here’s a good list of flowers for bees , butterflies, and moths along with some helpful pointers to get you on your way. Even just planting a clump of nutrient-dense flowers on your windowsill is well worth your time. If you can, make them natives.
Make a DIY bee sanctuary
Remember, this doesn’t need to be any Extreme Makeover: Bee Garden Edition kinda shit. If you’re really lazy, or don’t have the space to plant flowers, an easy option is to place a shallow container of water outside and adorn it with stones or floating corks, for bees to land on and drink from so they keep hydrated.
If that gets your creativity buzzing, you could go all out and make a bee hotel, providing a home for solitary bees threatened by habitat loss.
Stay away from pesticides and other chemicals
Just keep these out of your garden, simple as that. If you can’t garden organically for whatever reason, look for bee friendly sprays and avoid neonicotinoids, particularly those with acetamiprid, imidacloprid, thiacloprid and thiamethoxam on the ingredient list.
Spray your garden at dusk, after most pollinators have returned home, and always avoid spraying directly on flowers.
Buy local and organic
Do this for all your fruit and veg whenever you can, and try it for your honey too. See if there are any local beekeepers in your area, hit them up, and get them to hook you up with the sweet stuff.
Stick it to the man
Look into your country or state laws regarding the use or availability of neonicotinoids and the potential stressors placed on bees by the agriculture industry, like by transportation for almond grove pollination.
If something doesn’t sit right with you, get in contact with a politician or local representative and make your voice heard! If you need help writing an email or letter, see this guide.
The bigger picture
When you think about it, these interacting causes - our hyper-intensive agricultural system, the warming of the climate, the systematic destruction and dismissal of other life - are all really just symptoms of something else, something deeper. I hate to be the one to point the stinger, but these issues (and all their consequences) are rooted in our modern Western lifestyle. Bees are under threat from our globalized system of neoliberal capitalism, it’s brute domination over nature and it’s impossible promise of infinite growth on a planet of finite resources.
These are all immediate actions YOU can take to ease the pollinator crisis - but what about actually solving the issue? Well, that’s a bit more complicated.
Progress is being made against the use of neonicotinoids, with varying regulations and bans being enforced in the United States, the European Union and Canada. There is a worldwide movement toward sustainable farming practices and the end of monocultures. Hopefully this will also help combat disease, by improving bees immunity and building up resistance. But that’s not the end of the story.
It is not only our physical livelihoods that need to change. This crisis raises questions on an even more existential level, imploring us to reconsider the very way we structure our society, and even the way we think about our place in this world.
To actually ‘save the bees’ we might have to figure out a new way to manage our own hive first.