The Uncertain Future of Bees

Disclaimer: this ones a doozy. I tried not to write this much, but I guess I care a lot about bees.

Watching Vanishing of the Bees in class was actually my second time seeing the film.  Seeing it for the first time opened my eyes about the disappearance of honeybees and what Colony Collapse Disorder is and why it’s so scary in relation to our food crops.  However, watching it for the second time, I was able to think a little bit deeper about some of the issues and come up with some of my own questions and opinions that differed from or went unanswered in the documentary.

I realized that there was one extremely important consideration that the documentary missed, and it’s a surprising one.  The answer is native wild bees.  4,000 North American species to be exact.  These bees are vanishing as well, but in different ways. So why weren’t any of these species mentioned in the documentary with the all encompassing title, “Vanishing of the Bees”.  Why are honeybees the primary focus of the “Save the Bees” campaign?  I did my own research on this and have a lot to share with you.

The first thing that I want you to think about is where the honeybee comes from.  I didn’t realize until doing my own research that the honeybee is technically an invasive species.  They were introduced to North America by early european settlers and have adapted and spread rapidly.  There are many honeybees that live separately from humans but these are not truly “wild” bees, rather feral colonies. In this sense, honeybees are like horses (stay with me here).  We see a majestic “wild” stallion galloping across the plains and we think of it as a symbol of freedom and the Wild West, but there are no wild native horses in North America.  There are only feral populations that have habituated after being introduced by the Spanish, but they’ve been “wild” so long that we forget that they haven’t always been here.  Similar to the horses, we see the honeybee as a symbol of nature and harmony, but this is somewhat naive of us.  As an invasive species, honeybees do not add value to the ecosystem.  There is some debate on whether honeybees are displacing their native counterparts, as most invasive species do, but for the most part research shows that honeybees and native bees can coexist without major effects on one another.  Honeybees may not be doing as much harm as some invasive species, but they’re simply not meant to be here and our native wild ecology does not benefit from their introduction.

But the big issue that I want to talk bring up isn’t about feral honeybees, it’s about our commercial use of the species.  With so many wild bees around, why are we even using honeybees at all?  I thought that, maybe, the honeybees are better pollinators or somehow more efficient than our native bees but this isn’t the case.  Upon further research, I discovered that honeybees are actually not the most impressive pollinators.  They’re primary focus is actually nectar for honey production, which is another huge commercial gain for us, but has little to do with the pollination of our crops.  There are many other native bees that pollinate many times more effectively than honeybees or can pollinate particular crops that honeybees, quite frankly, are just lousy at pollinating.  For example, popular crops like tomatoes, eggplants, cranberries, blueberries, and potatoes all require buzz pollination in order to produce.  Buzz pollination is a particular method of pollination unique to bumblebees, therefore honeybees are much less effective or completely futile in their attempt to pollinate these types of plants.  Another example of a wild bee that trumps the honeybee in the pollination department is the squash bee, which pollinates plants like pumpkins and squash.  These plants bloom early in the morning while the honeybee is still asleep, therefore, by the time they get up to forage, the pollination has already been done successfully by the early rising squash bee, rendering the honeybee’s pollination redundant.  These examples are just two native bees out of 4,000, but you can see where I’m going with this.  Simply put, honeybees just don’t stand up against the masses when it comes to pollination.

So this leads us back to our earlier question. Why the honeybee? They don’t benefit the native ecosystem and they don’t pollinate as well as the wild bees, so what are the benefits? Well, for one, they’re easy to maintain.  They are relatively non-aggressive, they aren’t picky, and they are colonial insects.  Many wild bees are solitary nesters or burrowers.  But the one big reason that wild bees don’t make the cut is the fact that they don’t produce honey.  Honeybees win the golden ticket on that one.  So much of the campaign to save the bees focuses on what will happen to our food industry if honeybees disappear, but what many people aren’t aware of is that the honeybee is not the sole pollinator of our crops.  We exploit the species despite it’s inadequate pollination because the honey industry is huge, with honeybees producing about 176 million pounds of honey per year (Agricultural Statistics Board, 2011).  So is Colony Collapse Disorder really an issue of food shortages or is it an issue of honey shortages?  If the honeybee disappears we will lose our market for honey, which is no small thing for beekeepers, but it is important to understand that there is a difference between production of honey and pollination of our crops.  Many people believe that honey is a byproduct of pollination, but it’s actually the opposite, which is another reason why honeybees just aren’t efficient.  To sum it all up- honeybees benefit people, not nature.  We rely on them for our own commercial gain.

But lets step away from honey for a moment, because I really want to address the elephant in the room- monocultures.  Vanishing of the Bees talked a lot about the unsustainable practice of monocultures and how the pesticides used there are thought to be the leading cause of CCD.  While CCD only effects commercial honeybees, monocultures have extremely ill effects on native bees and other pollinators as well.  It comes down to the simple fact that monocultures are inhospitable for native pollinators.  Wild bees cannot survive on land that is taken over by one crop, because during the off season there is not enough to forage, so the honeybee is left to do the work.  I won’t go into the quality of life for commercial honeybees- that’s up for debate, but I will say that it takes a lot of time, money, and management to ship bees all over the country to pollinate different crops at different times of the year.  Basically, we’re using an invasive mediocre pollinator (no offense, honeybees) to sustain our unnatural and environmentally detrimental farming practices.  That, my friends, is the problem.

(If you’ve read this far, you’re a pal.  I hope you’re learning something at least! It’ll be over soon, I promise.)

I want to make it clear that Vanishing of the Bees is not a bad documentary, it’s just a little bias (and what documentary isn’t).  Still, their view on pesticides and sustainable farming is incredibly relevant and important.  We cannot rely on them entirely to pollinate our crops when we have thousands of species that will happily do it for free.  But in order for this to become a reality, we need to create environments for these wild bees.  This can be as easy as planting wildflowers along the border of your farmland, or integrating a variety of native plants in strips that run through your crops.  This creates enough biodiversity for wild bees to thrive and in turn, pollinate our crops.  To believe that we will starve without honeybees is discrediting the ability of native pollinators.  We will not starve without honeybees, but we will lose the ability to pollinate our large monocultures.  If honeybees disappear, we will be forced to sacrifice convenience and commercial value by transforming our farms back to ones that can sustain the life of a wild bee.  But why wait until honeybees have disappeared?  What is healthy for a wild bee is healthy for a honeybee.  Our farms need to be diverse and pesticide free.  Plant it and they will come.

To conclude this lengthy discussion on bees, I want to bring up a connection I made with Vanishing of the Bees and my own opinions while doing this research.  Near the end of the the documentary, Michael Pollan says that “nature doesn’t put all of her eggs in one basket”.  This is one of my favorite parts of the documentary because I believe it is absolutely true, but there is some irony in the context of the statement.  If we don’t believe we should rely heavily on monocultures, why are we relying almost entirely on one non-native species to do almost all of our pollinating when there are 4,000 native species who are more than capable if we would provide them with the right conditions.

Now, as a reward for reading all of that, enjoy these amazing bee portraits by Sam Droege:

2-golden-dusting-1600 3-honeybee-head-1600 4-augochloropsis-sumptuosa-bee-1600 5-drinking-straw-tongue-1600-1 6-bumblebee-1600 7-jewel-tones-1600 Screen Shot 2014-11-16 at 4.23.44 PM Screen Shot 2014-11-16 at 4.24.13 PM

Screen Shot 2014-11-16 at 4.23.55 PM Screen Shot 2014-11-16 at 4.24.31 PM

– Jay Barry

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One thought on “The Uncertain Future of Bees

  1. You sure did your research. I appreciate the blog post, I really did enjoy reading this. I like to see what people think in certain subjects. It was very informative and entertaining. The photos you’ve chosen and very beautiful also.

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