America’s Bee Crisis: Part 1 – How Did We Get Here?
Recently I got a bee in my bonnet. . . about bees. You see, a lot of concerned folk have been wringing their hands over the state of honeybees in America, as though they were the only bees who pollinate our crops. But they’re not our only bees. More importantly, they’re not even American bees. I’ve pointed this out a few places, left comments here and there, but more and more I feel like one little person in the back of a large, crowded room raising my hand and standing on my tippy-toes trying to be noticed, but to no avail. So, this is my chance to stand up, waive my arms and shout: “HEY, EVERYBODY!! We’ve got lots of other bees here! Let’s help them, too!” I hope I’m not shouting it into a void. If you can hear me, read on.
America’s Bee Crisis: Part 1 – How Did We Get Here?
When the first European settlers came to America they brought with them everything they needed to transform the American landscape into one that resembled the homes they had left behind: oxen and plows to work the land; tools to clear the trees and build houses; sheep, spindles, and looms for clothing; seeds for their favorite crops; and European honeybees to provide them with honey. The fertile American landscape was so much to the honeybees’ liking that it wasn’t long before they had spread from coast to coast, north to Alaska, and all the way to South America.
In the 19th century a number of improvements were made to the design of honeybee hives, rendering them both easier to maintain and to harvest to honey from without harming the bees. This culminated in the research of Reverend L. L. Langstroth, whose hive of the same name soon became the standard, and made beekeeping a fairly simple and rewarding pastime for many people.
Reverend Langstroth’s improvements to the honeybee hive coincided with the Industrial Revolution, a time of great upheaval when people en masse began abandoning their traditional agrarian livelihoods to work in cities. A monumental shift took place, as farm work became mechanized and farms grew larger, but with fewer people working them. Small family farms soon were in the minority, and as corporations consolidated farm land into enormous holdings, food became cheaper and the profit margins slimmer.
In order to maximize profits, agribusinesses needed to bring more and more land under the plow, incorporating parcels previously viewed as unsuitable for crops, and even farming right out to the edges of their property, not leaving any untilled greenspaces, or hedgerows. But they soon found themselves in a predicament, for without greenspace for the creatures of the world to live in you have no creatures at all, and this means no bees for pollination.
The crisis seemed to have been averted when beekeepers stepped in to fill the void. The Langstroth hive, which was so instrumental in providing people with an effective way to maintain a healthy hive, also happens to be immanently portable. Beekeepers found that they could easily load their hives onto trucks and drive the bees to wherever they were needed. Thus, honeybees no longer required habitat. Gardens, meadows, prairies, and forests weren’t necessary to their survival. They had their hives to live in and an endless succession of crops in bloom that they could be trucked to when needed. Man had truly triumphed over nature.
And so the honeybee became instrumental to modern industrial agriculture. In the span of a handful of decades we had developed a food system that was dependent on honeybees in a great part for its, and consequently our, survival. Crop monoculture became the norm, practiced on a massive scale which is mind-boggling in both its size and execution: thousands of acres of a single crop, planted and harvested using high-tech machinery run by computers to precisely make use of every inch of arable land.
But the marriage of modern beekeeping to modern agriculture soon revealed itself to be a double-edged sword, for the taxing conditions of this lifestyle is a burden the honeybees cannot bear. The concomitant pressures of pesticides, unvaried diet, transportation stress, and exposure to disease have taken their toll, and these poor insects are finally sending us a message we cannot ignore – they are dying. A lot.
Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, is perhaps the honeybees’ way of raising the alarm and telling us that we have asked too much of them. CCD is the name given in the mid-2000s to a phenomenon where all the workers of a hive disappear suddenly and without a trace. Although it was not unknown to beekeepers prior to the 21st century, its prevalence has increased substantially in this century, alarming beekeepers, farmers, and scientists.
Indeed, it wasn’t long before even the politicians and the media were up in arms over the disappearance of the honeybees and looking for something to blame. And with so many possibilities, we can all point a finger at whatever frightens us the most. Shall we blame pesticides? Genetically modified crops? Climate change? Cell phone towers? Wind turbines? Antibiotics? High-fructose corn syrup? These things make for flashy headlines, but fail to get at the heart of the matter: we have been exploiting honeybees to maintain an industrial food production system which is ultimately unsustainable, and it’s killing them.
But no one likes to talk about that, because that means we’re all contributing to the problem. Instead, the beekeepers blame the farmers for using pesticides, and the farmers blame the beekeepers for importing varroa mites, and the politicians blame whoever their constituents dislike the most, and the media reports on all these people arguing about the problem. And an important point seems to have been forgotten:
HONEYBEES DON’T BELONG HERE.
Now, I don’t mean to come across as a honeybee hater. Indeed, I like honey as much as the next person and I find their hive structure fascinating and enjoy watching them work in my garden. But I am – and I hope you are, too – frightened that we have built ourselves a food system that is heavily dependent on one. single. insect. And an invasive species, no less! Honeybees are not a critical part of any natural ecosystem either in North or South America, and if they were to disappear tomorrow our native flora and fauna would get along just fine.
So it’s both perplexing and alarming for me to see so many people advocating on behalf of honeybees – Let’s put honeybee hives in backyards and on rooftops across America! – as if this were the only way to bring us back from the brink. It is not, because although honeybees may not have been found here prior to the 17th century, North America was certainly not lacking bees before their arrival. Can you guess how many different species of bees are native to this continent?
Did you guess 4,000??? Ding-ding-ding-ding! That’s a whopping big number, huh? We have a pretty impressive variety of native bees here in America, all beautiful and special in their own way. Incorporating native bees into our food production system is how we save the bees – all bees – while achieving food security for ourselves. To do this we must accommodate their needs for food and habitat. But first we have to understand who these other 4,000 pollinators are.
More on that in Part 2. 🙂
P.S. This is a series of blog posts and will include a giveaway of 2 complete mason bee kits; be sure to follow me here and on Facebook so you won’t miss an installment.
The Nitty Gritty
Since acquiring my mason bees in 2008 I have developed a passionate interest in bees in general, and solitary bees in particular. This series is a culmination of my last 6 years spent reading books, scientific studies, and news articles, as well as observing bees in the wild. For further reading on this topic, I suggest:
For information about the history and management of honeybee hives: The Backyard Beekeeper, by Kim Flottum.
To learn about the history of industrial agriculture in America: The Omnivore’s Dilemma, by Michael Pollan.
Further reading about Colony Collapse Disorder: USDA – Honey Bees and Colony Collapse Disorder and USDA Report on the National Stakeholders Conference on Honey Bee Health.
For information about the number and variety of species of native bees in the U.S.: Bees of the World, by Chistopher O’Toole & Anthony Raw, pp. 22-33 (out of print).