Over the past few years, the state of our planet’s bee population has become of increasing concern to many people around the world. The causes, however, have been in place considerably longer than most people realize. Today, genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, are receiving a lot of the blame for the collapse of the honey bee populations in North America. After watching an inspiring TED talk by Marla Spivak titled Why bees are disappearing , Spivak notes the problem for the bees goes beyond GMOs. Though there is hard evidence supporting the role of GMO crops in the decline, the bee populations around the world have been subjected to a variety of stressors since World War II contributing to their decline: monoculture production of food, pesticides, flowerless landscapes, and bee disease.
Honeybees have been praised by human civilizations for their honey as a natural sweetener for thousands of years, but we depend on them today more than ever before. We have increased the area of land devoted to crops requiring bee pollination by 300 percent in the last 50 years (Aizen et al. 2008). In Marla Spivak’s talk on the decline of bee populations, she notes that bees account for pollinating one-third of the world’s food crops. You could see why this might be a problem for a world expecting to be home to 9.6 billion hungry people by 2050, as projected by the United Nations in a report I referred to in an earlier post.
Following World War II, with the advent of synthetic nitrogen-based fertilizers, the practice of monocultures become increasingly more common in the agricultural setting, as opposed to polycultures. Traditionally, crop rotations, composting, cover crop planting, and other sustainable farming techniques were used on smaller farms to maintain and improve soil quality. All of this meant that polycultures were the norm, with many varieties of crops being planted in the same space. These environments were ideal for bee populations because the bees depend on pollen and nectar from flowering plants to make up their diet. When monoculture came to dominate the landscape, the ecology of these areas could no longer support such a large population of bees. (I recommend watching the documentary film Food Inc. if you are interested in the various circumstances that led to the domination of large monocultures throughout the United States and how large seed and pesticide companies are now trying to establish monoculture production of food in other regions of the globe, though they are meeting considerable opposition).
At the same time, we introduced a variety of pesticides to enable the monoculture crops to exist and threw away the older, more sustainable techniques used in agriculture. One of the many costs of genetically engineering crops is the game of cat and mouse that is created when pests become resistant to a pesticide. It becomes an evolutionary arms race between the pesticide companies and the pests, ultimately resulting in an increased use of pesticides in quantity and quality. The pests are able to adapt to the pesticides, leading to more and newer classes of pesticides being used on our cops. Also, the monocultures are an agricultural pest’s heaven. The abundance of food to eat, seemingly without any limit, attracts all different types of organisms trying to exploit the food source. This, in turn, has resulted in the use of various pesticides to combat the array of pests, such as insects, fungi, and bacteria. Traditionally, the diversity on small polyculture farms, along with the sustainable agricultural practices of the farmers, kept pests in control with a variety of creative, innovative, and sustainable techniques. Planting of flowers was done to attract beneficial insects, like honey bees, and ward off unwanted organisms. Using compost, instead of synthetic fertilizers, kept the soil full of life. They simply did not spray their crops with such harmful chemicals. The traditional small polyculture farms acted more like an ecosystem, rather than like an input/output software program on your laptop
The important thing to understand is that pesticides range in their class and type because they are used on different organisms to combat specific problems associated with planting anything, but especially in a monoculture landscape. Herbicides, designed to kill ‘weeds’ are detrimental to the bee populations because flowering ‘weeds’ are what they depend on, as I mentioned, for their diet. Even more concerning are the class of neuro-active insecticides called neonicotinoids, which some independent research links to honey-bee colony collapse disorder (CCD). It is important to note that the studies that have findings liking neonicotinoids to CCD are independent, third-party research studies and not industry-funded studies. These studies are different to studies performed by companies, who maintain that they can police themselves by hiring their own scientists to conduct the necessary research into the safety of their products. (I will leave you to decide your stance on industry-funded research. I enjoyed the documentary film Fed Up, which goes into detail on the topic of research on food/diet and industry over the past 50-60 years).
Additionally, the loss of agricultural land and the rapid rates of urbanization is making the landscape flowerless. Although our monocultures are not ideal habitats for bees, they currently are supporting bee populations. The lack of access to non-toxic flowering plants is of major concern to honey bees, since the class of pesticides, mentioned above, called neonicotinoids are found in every part of the plant’s tissue. Other classes of pesticides, still toxic, just coated the outer portion of the seeds, which had a much milder effect on bee populations. The pollen gathered from a corn plant genetically modified for neonicotinoids, for example, is linked to CCD in many studies, which prompted the European Union and seven other countries to restrict their use in 2013 (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-22335520). Neonicotinoids are fundamentally different from other pesticides in that it is ubiquitous in the entire plant.
Lastly, the disappearance of bees can be attributed to an increase in infection of disease in bees. I will not go into much detail on the types of diseases, pests, parasites, and predators of bees, but I will note that if there is too much stress on any organism, acute or chronic, they will have lowered immunity to fight off infections, less energy to put into defense and maintenance, and be in overall lesser health . This could explain why bees are dying from diseases, pests, parasites, and predators at a higher rate because they are being exposed to so many different stressors, as I have outlined in this post.
In the concluding remarks of the TED talk that prompted me to write on this topic, Marla Spivak says there are two things we can do to help the bees: plant more flowers and stop poisoning these flowers. For me, this means we need more small farms with diversified plantings of crops, flowers, and cover crops, as well as more urban agriculture. Since more than half of us live in an urban setting, it is essential that we advocate our politicians and public officials make room in the budget for green spaces. We need to plant more gardens to help the bees recover from what has been about a 50 percent decline since 1950 (USDA). In 1945 there were an estimated 4.5 million beehives in the United States, and in 2007 the estimation was about 2 million bee hives (USDA-NASS).
A more recent survey conducted by the United States federal government found even larger losses this past year. “Since April 2014, beekeepers lost 42.1 percent of their colonies, the second-highest rate in nine years, according to an annual survey conducted by a bee partnership that includes the U.S. Department of Agriculture” (http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/42-of-honeybee-hives-killed-off-in-u-s-last-year-1.3072845). What is even stranger about this story is that the bees are noted to be dying at higher rates than expected during the summer time. The growing season is a time when bees are expected to have a healthy survivorship rate because of favorable weather and food abundance. The dramatic decrease in bee populations during the summer cannot be explained without looking for outside causes for their downfall, and I think a good place to start looking is at our food system.
If we want to continue to eat the foods we enjoy at the supermarkets today, we will have to change the way food is produced and consumed by making policies that protect bees from toxic chemicals and that result in the development of more green space. Local, small, diverse farming is what we need to reduce pesticide and synthetic fertilizer usage and increase bee populations. Taking action will not only be beneficial for bee health, but will also contribute to the ecological health of the planet, and consequently, improved human well-being.
For the full TED Talk by Marla Spivak titled Why Bees are disappearing visit: http://www.ted.com/talks/marla_spivak_why_bees_are_disappearing/transcript?language=en#t-380999