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.

Beekeeper with Langstroth hive. Photo courtesy of bekhiann.

Beekeeper with Langstroth hive. Photo courtesy of bekhiann.

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.

Industrial monoculture farming. Photo courtesy of Doc Searls.

Industrial monoculture farming. Photo courtesy of Doc Searls.

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.

A honeybee trailer. Photo courtesy of Paul White.

A honeybee trailer. Photo courtesy of Paul White.

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:


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?

Unidentified native bee (L) and European honeybee (R).

Unidentified native bee (L) and European honeybee (R).

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).

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18 Responses

  1. Deb G says:

    You may not be concerned about honeybees nor think they belong here, but consider the bigger picture of what is happening to them. It’s foolish to say, well, we have lots of different bees so we don’t need them anyway. What’s happening to the honeybees could be a signal of worse things to come with pollinators, so whether they are ultimately saved or not, the absolute cause must be found to make sure other bee species don’t fail as well. I think your viewpoint is narrow and I’m definitely glad more people don’t feel the same…

    • Sarah says:

      Hi, Deb:

      I think I’ve made a pretty good case in the article above that the only “absolute cause” for Colony Collapse Disorder is the way we are exploiting honeybees to support industrial monoculture farming, something I care about deeply not only as it relates to honeybees and bees in general, but to all life on the planet, including us. In the rest of the series I’ll explain why our native bees are more effective crop pollinators than honeybees and how we can incorporate them into modern agriculture. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.

      Sarah M.

    • Annie says:

      I don’t really agree with you. It seems to me the case she’s making is for much more attention to wider ecological health, that involves a range of species and interactions. From a Permaculture point of view, at least, it’s inspiring– as well as a really interesting take on US agricultural history. You are right that Honey Bees might be a harbinger– this blog is just saying– let’s keep our perspective broad. We’re all on the same side– hoping for the best.

  2. Annie says:

    Thanks for this work, Sarah. I learned a lot from this article. Our ecological situation is so worrying in so many ways, but it’s inspiring the work you are doing on behalf of your native bees. Good luck. I’m looking forward to following this series.

  3. This was well written and informative. As much as I love seeing both native and European honey bees in my garden, I hadn’t really considered the untenable nature of our honeybee dependence. It’s one more out-of-whack cog in the corporate gears that turn the agribusiness machine.

  4. Kristin says:

    Thank you for such a well written and well thought out post! I’ve been concerned about the bees for a variety of reasons, but I never once stopped to think that they were an invasive species. I want to own bees when I move, but clearly I need to do a little more research on ones native to this country.

    Have you seen the documentary Vanishing of the Bees by any chance? I thought it was well done and I’m just curious of your opinion.

    • Sarah says:

      I haven’t seen that documentary, but will look for it. Thanks for the recommendation!

      Re: keeping honeybees at home. My own opinion is that if this is something you really want to do so you can have your own honey source you should go for it. Honeybees are a fully naturalized species throughout North and South America, and that’s never going to change. If your interest lies more with providing habitat for bees, or maintaining pollinators to help your crops, then there are native species that you can keep instead. Later in this series I will discuss how to provide nest sites for native bees, and give away some mason bee houses. So, stick around! 🙂

  5. Denise says:

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge,I am enjoying your blog. We host Honeybee hives on our property, but we also have Mason Bee nesting sites and try to keep our garden and property attractive to the many bee species in our area. It’s amazing to see just how many there are, our garden literally hums in the spring.

  6. Sarah says:

    Yes, and many don’t know this or fail to acknowledge .Though it is hard to grasp that hives came over on boats from europe and got carried across the country in wagons. Poor bees.

    I think I read that it was mainly for the beeswax, for religious candles

    Good job on the article. Yes, our monoculture is biting us on the butt on many levels.

    I have bees and I feel bad when I enjoy almonds because of the horrible way bees are treated getting ready for the groves in spring.

    • Sarah says:

      In complete agreement with you about the almonds! “Paleo” almond flours recipes are so popular right now, I have to bite my tongue every time one of my friends posts one. I actually have a half-written blog post about how the California almond industry is wreaking havoc on bees, both wild and managed. This series of posts has gotten me some accusations of being a honeybee hater, but the truth is I feel very, very sorry for them. The way they are being used I think is pretty comparable to some of the horrors of factory farming livestock.

  7. For nearly 400 years, we’ve been told that the honey bee (genus Apis) did not exist on this continent until 1622. That’s when the colonists brought it over from Europe. But wait!

    Honey bees existed at least 14 million years ago in North America, according to a fossil record – see article in Science News:

  8. Et Ash says:

    first I will say that I have in some form or fashion been keeping bees for about 50+ years and at least at times the honeybee was my one and only employer. your little article is interesting but just chock full of inaccuracies. from a concept bases you idea is also flawed…. that is yes there may be 4000 native species of bees and pollinators in the US (the entomology types here in Texas inform me there is somewhere between 400 and 600 species in this state alone) but all of these species are quite incapable of replicating the job of the one imported species knows as the european honeybee. of course if you like a diet solely of corn and potatoes you will have no problem when the honeybee is gone. also you seem to avoid the question as to whether the problems now faced by the honeybee might jump to any of these native pollinators.

    • Sarah says:

      The only job the European honeybee does that our native bees are unable to do is support industrial monoculture agriculture, which succeeds by wiping out all vegetation and planting millions of acres with a single crop. If you would like to have some understanding of the excellent job our native bees do, I recommend reading the rest of this series, where I discuss their attributes in some detail. Regarding whether the issues plaguing the honeybee might also affect our native bees: all the honeybee’s woes can be directly linked to its use in industrial agriculture, save one – the varroa mite. The varroa mite is not a parasite of any of our native bees. Thank you for taking the time to comment.

  9. sheila miller says:

    Truly learning alot! I have wanted bees for sometime now, but knew that having hives was out of the question. So, now that I have learned of the Mason Bee, I know that I can have bees! Now to learn more about how to prep for them. Thanks for the wonderful, information-filled articles.
    Sheila Miller in SC

  10. Such a informative post. Thanks for sharing your knowledge.

  1. January 20, 2014

    […] is the 2nd part of an ongoing series about the state of bees in America. Read Part 1 to learn how an invasive species, the European honeybee, became the cornerstone of modern […]

  2. January 25, 2014

    […] is Part 3 of an ongoing series about the state of bees in America. Prior posts are: Part 1 – How Did We Get Here? Part 2 – Our Big, BEE-utiful […]

  3. April 17, 2015

    […] but native bees as well.  May I recommend it? She’s very smart indeed.  Here’s Part 1, and you can follow from […]

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