You may have heard about Colony Collapse Disorder: a beekeeper steps out in the morning to check on her hives only to find the worker bees have vanished, seemingly over night, leaving no trace. The phenomenon was first noted in Europe but is now widespread across the United States. Although no one has been able to pinpoint exactly what the cause is, a look at our modern treatment of the honeybee is quite telling.
Our diets have evolved to demand a multitude of fruits and veggies year round. Instead of waiting for berries to come into season, they are sitting at our closest Safeway every month of the year. In order to have citrus in the summer and tomatoes in the winter, we need honeybees working overtime. We are running a kind of honeybee slave operation.
Here are just a few of the things stressing out bees:
Honeybees thrive off of the nectars and pollens they collect. They even vary their own diets, flying farther to find different blooms. But, today’s commercial beekeepers commonly feed their bees artificial syrups made out of high fructose corn syrup. High fructose corn syrup comes nowhere close to the range of fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals found in wild pollen and nectar.
Neonicotinoids are systemic pesticides. Unlike pesticides sprayed topically, these pesticides are a part of the soil or seed and so express themselves in the whole plant. They are extremely effective in attacking pests, but also extremely effective in attacking non-target species like honeybees. These pesticides are also persistent; they can last over a decade in soil. While the European Union has banned the use of Neonicotinoids, they are still in widespread use across the United States.
Most large-scale beekeepers don’t make their money from honey production. Their money comes from pollination services. Large monoculture operations, like almond plantations for example, require pollination for a couple weeks out of each growing season. Because these monocultures don’t grow any other plants, bees aren’t able to survive the rest of the year. So, these operations rent honeybees for the two weeks they need them.
Let’s look at almonds a little more closely. California’s Central Valley produces 50-80% of all almonds worldwide. Domestic consumption of almonds has grown by 220% since 2005. Each February, 31 billion honeybees are dropped off in the Central Valley to pollinate the almond trees. They are then carted across the rest of the country. They pollinate everything from apples in Washington to clementines and tangerines in Florida. This is completely mind boggling to me. We have a global temperature that keeps rising, a dwindling supply of water and oil, and bees that are disappearing. Yet, we maintain 810,000 acres of almond trees whose only hope of survival is an enormous amount of water, pesticides and chemical fertilizers, and imported bees. We are indeed thinking backwards. [I do not mean to pick on almonds specifically, I’m using them as an example among an endless amount of monoculture operations.]
There are many other factors I have not mentioned here such as pests, pathogens, viruses, and lack of genetic diversity due to artificial bee reproduction.
What we can do:
- Buy local honey from a small-scale beekeeper. Two-thirds of honeybee colonies are transported for pollination services because beekeepers can make more money from renting out their bees than producing honey. And why are pollination services more lucrative? Because giant monoculture operations make high profit off of selling cheap food. There is a reason these crops are cheap, they are cheap because there are hidden costs not accounted for in their price. Costs like poor working conditions and environmental degradation.
- Buy local, organic, traditionally farmed food. I strongly believe in voting with your dollar. By supporting small-scale farms, you are not supporting industrialized farms. And in turn, not adding to the need for migratory beekeeping.
- Plant bee-friendly plants in your garden, eliminate pesticides, and provide bee habitats. You can read more about these options here.