Ecocentric

The Trouble with Beekeeping in the Anthropocene

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

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Allan Baxter via Getty Images

Besides being a handy symbol of environmental decline, the honeybee also does some pollination

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.

(MORE: Behind the Bee’s Knees: The Origins of Nine Bee-Inspired Sayings)

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.

Subscribe here to read Bryan Walsh’s full TIME cover story on A World Without Bees. Already a subscriber? Read it here.

166 comments
JeremySchaefer
JeremySchaefer

It is not cell phones, not so much the stuff everyone thinks it is I guess.  But hey if you would really like to learn more on how to help your bee population, look here at www.vibrantbees.com

PeterLarsen
PeterLarsen

Hasn't anyone considered cell phone towers affecting the honey bees?  Ever since a cell tower was put up here, the honey bees no longer made a bee line, and then they disappeared.  Electromagnetic radiation is never brought up in discussion.

PhilippeVerdy
PhilippeVerdy

Bees are not alone to polinize flowers and our agriculture.


Butterflies, lots of insects are also affected by these pesticides. Plants generally don't need pesticide to defend themselves: they develop and sacrifice their own parts of bodies in such a way that they will capture these "pests" and limit the propagation to neighbors, and even more easily when these plants are not overly selected, and that the other natural species can also participate to the limitation of spreads.


These pesticides have a much too large spectrum. They are also very inefficient because they contaminate much more than what they are supposed to eradicate. They are also too much resistant and cumulate into our own food we eat throughout our life. Then they accumulate with time in out own body for extended periods. They disorganise our own resistance to illnesses.


For example these pesticides will kill young birds, will kill bats (that help killing also lots of mosquitos). The other effect of these pesticides is that they accelerate the mutation of mutating species that resist to them. These pests also adopt a more massive way of reproduction to survive. This means that when sme individuals have developed some resistance, they become rapidly predominant in that specy and pesticides are rapidly ineffective, and farmers will then use MORE massive and MORE frequent uses of pesticides, multiplying them with new variants that are constantly more expensive. So the food produced becomes more and expensive.


Finally, all peasants forced to use these pesticides rapidly develop various forms of severe illnesses causing severe disabilities. Ruining them too and destroying their ability to develop new cultures or improving them. Tey also get reduced choices for seeds.


But the worse is that the only available seeds are produced in hybrid forms that are infertile: they are not reusable, and they are prepared as well within packs full of pesticids. The seeds also constantly cost more. Monsanto works with chemical companies to develop these vars of seeds that kill our countrysides and reduce the fertility of natural seeds.


We don't need pesticids at all. What we need is to search for natural species of insects that can help fight the pests while leaving a small part of them living (also with lots of variations of specifes so that they will control each other by competing between themselves).


We can develop butterflies, ants, arachnids. This will provide food in various seasons for allowing various species of bords to live in interseasons, and to maintain low levels of infestations. We can develop rapace predators, owls. And maintain the level of birds to low levels. We need rapaces as well for helping prevention of illnesses caused by died animals.


It is complete non-sense to overopitmize an agriculture production to levels that will not be sustainable for more than a few years. We need agriculture for centuries and milleniums. And we need it to remain diverse. Let's stop the standardization and allow peasants to develop locally the best species with their own knowledge of the field (with the help of searchers, but also with reasonnable training that favors the interchange of experiences).


So we'll get various types of foods, changing every day of the year. With this diversity of food, we'll get less health problems, more choices in tastes, better pleasure to eat and being satisfied without eating too much. Products being produced more locally, will also be fresher, will be better conserved, will use less energy, less water. And we'll keep our lovely campaigns with people living well there with proudness of their exclusive local products.


And it's possible to do that now wit hthe Internet ! People can register to buy seasonal products from a farm and get fresh products delivered to them, or available in small local stores (if these products must be kept cold, they can't be sent via postal delivery). Local stores can include drive-in delivery (all major malls are developing these. People really do like their local products and like discovering new local products when they travel. We don't need uniformity.


Life lives in harmony with what we consider as "pests". A low level of pests is perfectly acceptable and even vital for our agriculture. Inserts also supply the food chain for birds that are contaminated by pesticides. Without birds, the spread of genetic diversity is also in danger, and biodiversity is the best arm that nature has to avoid naturally the most dramatic effects caused by massive invasions of pests against a single genotype.


AlexCowling
AlexCowling

I'm concerned about the declining bee population. Should I buy and set up a bee hive colony in my backyard in Sydney/Wollongong, Australia?

CrystalSandry
CrystalSandry

Scientist predicted many many years ago that world food supplies would no longer be sufficient to support our ever increasing world populations.   They were wrong for only one reason.  We found out that productivity could be increased 10 fold by pumping nitrates into our soils, by introducing pesticides, by creating corn and soybean hybrids that would be more productive and disease resistant.  Thus, we have created an artificial world of food production that has vast and complicated consequences.  The bees dying off is just a little piece of it.  As climate change escalates and world populations *continue* to climb what sort of world do you think we have waiting for us in 30 years?

pray4thebees
pray4thebees

I knew something was going on after being under repeated psychic attack for the last 9 years. I think you humans are losing your minds and your sense of self as a result of climate change and you were taking it out on me.  You people better get your shi* together and solve the problem rather than taking it out on the most vulnerable of us.  Because taking it out on me will not save your sorry souls. 

JadeneMayla
JadeneMayla

I really wish everyone would simply admit that pesticides and fungicides need to be curbed.  We are talking about world food supply, and if we do not take this seriously by doing something about the obvious causes (science keeps showing us), we will have to suffer the consequences.  Fruit, vegetables, and animals that also depend on plant sources.  Hello!?

Hope4Change
Hope4Change

If it is true the European Honey bee is becoming extinct in America, that is GREAT news! As we all know, the honey bee was brought to America by the European settlers. The greed of the old, selfish white European invaders of Jamestown are finally coming to fruition. Years of raping the pristine native American wilderness will come to an end, and the environment can be cleansed and reclaimed to original condition upon removal of this pest! The European honey bee is the epitome of an invasive species - carpe diem!

achiwo
achiwo

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Scientists warn of a rapid collapse of the Earth's ecosystem.
The ecological balance is under threat: climate change, population growth and environmental degradation could lead even in this century an irreversible collapse of the global ecosystem.
 
--> http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2012/06/06/scientists-uncover-evidence-of-impending-tipping-point-for-earth/

The cardinal reason is the sudden development of human population that threatens to devour all our resources.

Since 21 August there is therefore a petition at change.org for the introduction of global birth-controls, also in HINDI!

If you want to support this or publish it on your website, here is the link:
http://www.change.org/de/Petitionen/weltweite-geburtenregelungen-verbindlich-einf%C3%BChren-introduce-obligatory-worldwide-birth-controls

Please continue to spread the link or the petition as possible to all interested people, organisations etc.
 
Thank you and best regards
Achim Wolf, Germany

BelowPar18
BelowPar18

For what it's worth, I used to work with an aerial application company that sprayed many types of herbicides, pesticides, etc for the forestry and agricultural industries.  While its obvious the dangers pesticides present, I never had the chance to see their direct impact on bees.   One thing I did notice however, was that on certain days, bees would actually seem to be Attracted to the mix tanks.  They would fly in while the lid was briefly open for mixing and die - Either from drowning or poisoning.  It was never huge numbers... I never had a swarm or even more than a few at once.  But it would add up to a couple dozen a day or more depending on what we were spraying.

Over time I noticed a pattern...  Many of the Chemical Products (aka Garlon, Accord, etc..) and Surfactants smell very sweet.  The sweeter the smell of the mix, the more the bees were attracted to the mix.  In fact, the Pesticides seemed to be less of a draw than some of the others.  

I can't say that I ever had a chance to witness the bees dying from this stuff in their natural habitat or study them in a scientific way.  But I'm convinced from my first hand experience that the Chemical industry is a big part of the puzzle in the decreasing health of the honey bee populations.  (In addition to general air pollution, etc... )  

Some of the chemicals used in these applications can have serious side effects on humans - some of which we are still learning about.  So it's ridiculous that these companies will even try to convince anyone that their product is harmless to a tiny bug with an exoskeleton who's primary food and life sustaining supply is the plants which are being sprayed.

One more thing...  As I said before, there's no doubt in my mind that these chemicals have unseen and yet to be discovered side effects.  Because of this, I have done a good bit of research to try and understand it a bit more in depth than just what my first hand experience provided.  Something I noticed was that many of the studies on the effects of these chemicals on bees seem to focus on the direct impact on the Bees Life, rather than focusing on the overall health of the Hive Colony or the Individual Capabilities the different types of bees have that are Vital to the Health of the Colony.

In addition, we shouldn't just be looking at the effects of the Herbicides and Pesticides.  These are just part of the overall Mix which is being applied.  For example, most mixes use surfactants which are designed to make the Mix Stick or Adhere to the leaves or plants being sprayed.  Many of the stronger mixes are designed to be able to stick and penetrate various types of plants that have a Waxy Protective coating on their leaves.  It's also well known that Bees produce a Protective Waxy Coating on their skin for protection and, of course, to build the honeycombs in their hives which protect their young and store the honey.  My theory?  That these surfactants have damaging effects on Bees Wax, and their capability to produce it, similar to the effects they have on Plant Leaf Wax Coatings.  Just a theory... But there are other similar theories and observations published.  But like I said before, this is likely a big puzzle with more than one answer...




kdittem21
kdittem21

. 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.very

so true.   The human species has mostly lost it's innate connection with nature.  For some reason, the myth that we are superior beings persists.   The consequences of this myth have become increasingly evident.  Unless we humble ourselves enough to dispell the myth, our species will be the cause of its own demise.

Read more: http://science.time.com/2013/08/09/the-trouble-with-beekeeping-in-the-anthropocene/#ixzz2ezG4UYFN

WeAreBeeBay
WeAreBeeBay

Bless the Bees: The Pending Extinction of our Pollinators and What We Can Do to Stop It 

http://amzn.com/B00EYOG02A

"If the bee disappears from the earth, man would have no more than four years to live" Albert Einstein.

This beautifully illustrated edition is meant to educate the reader about the potential extinction of the bees as an indicator of a mass extinction, the last one of which was 65 million years ago. It explains what pollination is, who does it, why it’s essential to us, what things are threatening our pollinators and what we, as individuals, can do about it.  Trailer:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IdJbPENVnzY

JohnHarding
JohnHarding

Hello

Very few want to hear the truth.

Look at the facts regarding honeybees versus pesticides (neo-nic`s) from a professional beekeeper;

If it was neo-nic`s it would be local, only beehives within approximately 2 miles radius to that area where neo-nic`s are grown would die, not widespread across the whole country including Cities and National Parks.

Common sense indicates it would mean a neo-nic`s crop would have to be every four miles across the UK for at least 8 months of the year including our Cities and National Parks and yet honeybee colonies are dying within these boundaries due to another reason, and not pesticides.

Beehives within Common Moors or miles away from neo-nic`s would not be affected and yet they too, suffer.

Many of the lobbyists have an agenda for neo-nic`s ban, they are not beekeepers or have beekeeping at heart, who are using false claims in city beekeeping against rural beekeeping and yet if beekeepers were asked they would inform you of honeybee colonies dying in any environment.

France banned neo-nic`s in 2008 and yet the honeybee decline continues.

Bumblebees were used in laboratory tests NOT honeybees.

Laboratory tests overdosed the bumblebees with pesticides (neo-nic`s) now being flawed.

If science cannot prove a fact then an opinion is formulated so an assumption is made to what is happening to ALL bees in the wild.

When field tests were done it was found to be inconclusive.

Pollen tested from beehives near to neo-nic`s, only a millionth of a millionth was found on a pollen grain, this is not enough to give any honeybee an upset stomach rather than kill 80,000 honeybees in each of my colonies 

BBC Countryfile interviewed all responsible for the above information and is available on BBC,  i-Player.

The media is flawed in only reporting part of scaremongering assumptions of the original opinion therefore confusing the ill-informed public. When repeated the opinion is forgotten so becoming fact. Memories are short within media.

Beekeepers actively take their colonies to neo-nic’s oil seed rape for building up the colony and an early spring crop of honey and yet there is no detrimental effect to their honeybees

Too many assumptions are made by uneducated personnel who do not keep or understand honeybees.

My colonies are by and where pesticides are used and yet my honeybee colonies are NOT dying.

I am not condoning chemicals as I want chemicals taken out of the beehive, Oh! You didn’t know beekeepers use chemicals to treat the parasitic mite Varroa, so if beekeepers are blaming neo-nic`s, would that be hypocritical?

Neo-nic`s are the safest pesticide to use, it contains the pesticide within the plant and kills only the pest that attacks the plant. Now neo-nic`s are banned. Farming will use more fatal pesticides using aerial sprays that will kill more of the environment. Well done lobbyists!

There is one point overlooked, we have 7 billion people on Planet Earth, lobbyist appear to want to wipe out a billion or two. Let us work together rather than condemnation to others.

The parasitic varroa mite is a key reason for the honeybee demise but not the main one.My hypothesis gets rid of the varroa mite, naturally. 

There is one other phenomenon, EMF, that kills or saves honeybees but allow the honeybee to control varroa mites.

There is an easy answer to stop honeybee colonies dying worldwide and I have that answer as you will read if you contact me. If my hypothesis was adopted by beekeepers worldwide no chemicals would be needed within the beehive.

The Chemical Industry could concentrate their efforts to creating safer ways to produce food for all.

It has taken over 20 years of my 33 years beekeeping career to find.

If you want to know please contact me direct.

Regards

John Harding

harding@clavies.freeserve.co.uk

Foundups
Foundups

@BillCBeekeeper @JohnHarding You dont have the same die off because the water in cities has less pesticide in it and their is far less exposure to pesticides. One way to save our bees in imo the cities. 

Foundups
Foundups

@JohnHarding Read my comment  below. Bees have been living in an ever increasing toxic landscape for 60 yrs now. We have created a toxic environment and we have hit the tipping point. Yea we have 7 billion people and an AgroChemical Industrial Complex encouraging the use of over 100 kinds of highly toxic chemicals that are harming our bees. The permaculture and natural farming techniques work. Natural composting teas from wormwood and other insect resistant weeds work to reduce pest exposure. Creating spider, bat and swallow habitats, solar powered bug lights and companion crops all could be used and must to reduce our dependence on agrochemicals. The issue is very simple, just look at the bloody facts... "It's pesticides stupid."   

BillCBeekeeper
BillCBeekeeper

@JohnHarding Dear sir, I am an urban treatment free beekeeper in Baltimore, Maryland, USA...I dont have the same die offs as most beekeepers do. I am a firm believer that the chemical treatments and antibiotics used in the hives are a big part of the issue. Chemical interactions are the main problem. External exposure to neonics and every other applied agricultural pesticides, herbicide, fungicide are the other half of this chemical exposure problem. If it isn't crop applied, its applied all over yards, public parks, road sides, parkways, or any other area where humans are just too lazy to hand pick weeds or spend the time to mechanically mange. Our over dependence on chemicals is also having a profound effect on our own lives, we just don't exactly see it...YET!!! There are few to zero long term studies on the effects of neonics and most all other agricultural toxins used in our ecosystem. The bees are our "canary in the coal mine" and if we continue to ignore this precursor, we are in for a terrible surprise. A couple term you may be familiar with is bio-accumulation and multi-generational acute toxicity...both have a similar meaning when it comes to bees. Constant exposure to very low levels of toxic materials eventually builds up in a bee hive. It doesn't kill colony right away, but after a period of time, the effects begin to manifest themselves after several generations. After a certain amount of generations, the effects are profound and deadly. This is happening right now in our soils and ground water. These highly toxic materials, neonics included, are building up in our bodies. All chemicals bio-accumulate in the ecosystem and our bodies. 

Foundups
Foundups

Time: "We don't know why?" Me: It's pesticides stupid. We have 60 year of data from the ETA showing the collapse of bees. This data is the mirror opposite of the market diffusion of pesticides during the same period. The ONLY time bees recovered in the last 6IN0yrs was between 1978-1982 when the most restive pesticide regulations were enacted by Carter Administration. over 90% of ALL water tested by the USGS has pesticides in it even the rain water. We plant enough bee toxic GMO crops (Roundup Ready and BT pesticide) to cover France, Spain and Italy. All of these toxins are poisoning the water vita for bees. They need it to drink, feed their young, queen and cool the hive.  24 types of pesticides have been found in bees. Even worse beekeepers are feeding bees sugar from Roundup Ready GMO sugar beets. Roundup has been shown to weaken the immune system and makes bees susceptible to mites and viruses. Bees have been living in a toxic landscape for decades and they have finally reached the tipping point the ONLY solution is to #StopPesticdes. It's pesticides stupid! 

Also read this fastcompany.com WIK-BEE LEAKS: EPA DOCUMENT SHOWS IT KNOWINGLY ALLOWED PESTICIDE THAT KILLS HONEY BEES http://j.mp/bayerkillsbees here is the leaked EPA memo http://www.panna.org/sites/default/files/Memo_Nov2010_Clothianidin.pdf

Oysi
Oysi

If you don't have room for a hive in your backyard, take a moment to sign on to @repblumenauer's bill, the "Save the America's Pollinators Act of 2013." This bill will suspend the use of the pesticides that kill bees until the EPA can give them a thorough review. Sign here if you think chemicals should be tested before they can be sprayed indiscriminately and kill the pollinators that uphold our food supply!

http://www.avaaz.org/en/petition/Support_the_Save_the_Americas_Pollinators_Act_of_2013/?email

Samsnephew
Samsnephew

I remember when I was young, no one did anything to their yard except begrudgingly mow it once in a great while. Clover flourished everywhere and the honeybees were on it and they flourished. This is not complicated. No one has clover in their yard anymore. Bees are starving in the desert that man created. Bryan said they only have a 5 mile range. It is like dropping us in the Sahara. No food! We disappear! 

Foundups
Foundups

@Samsnephew unfortunately, they bees are not starving... Japan is a full of flowers and their are no bees. Japan however, is the #1 user of pesticides in the world. "It's pesticides stupid" plain and simple and the 60 yrs of EPA data on bee collapse says it all. We have created an insect toxic environment with our addiction to systemic pesticides and toxic GMO crops and it has finally caught up with us. 

jennawaldrop
jennawaldrop

If Monsanto wasn't killing off the bees in the first place we wouldn't have this problem!!! They're killing off the bees so we have to eat their MUTATED poison-ridden food. DOWN WITH MONSANTO!!!!!! Do you your research!!! Stop corporate agenda, quit giving these people your money!

KatSan
KatSan

More like we are a species with omnipotence without any respect for any other life other than ourselves. 

JonathanWagner
JonathanWagner

Regardless of what is causing it, I can only see one solution and that is through bee selective breeding. They are already starting to do this in Europe and I honestly think it is the only solution to such a complex issue. We need to focus on breeding bees that are CCD resistant regardless of what is actually causing it. There is already a breed strain that has figured out how to clean off the parasites from each other.

We are kind of trying to delay the inevitable by constantly beefing up the current bee population. Chances are if we let it run its course they wouldn't go extinct, a new breed would emerge that would be resistant to the majority of things that are causing them to die.

KatSan
KatSan

@JonathanWagner We can't simply rely on selective breeding, now that would diminish the genetic pool of these bees and we will be constantly dealing newer pathogens and the need to develop a newer breed, and so on.