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From Issue #23 August 15, 2013

Bumbling Idiots

It takes the power of a hive mind to save bees from extinction.

By Chris Stokel-Walker Twitter icon 

There’s a tiny miracle happening next to me as I enjoy a picnic with my family on a sunny July afternoon in a London park. As we pick at our food, a bumblebee floats by, then swoops down close to the tightly cropped grass.

The bee hovers, silently moving toward a tiny yellow oxalis. It sets down on the stamen, wiggling its backside as it digs itself deeper toward the base of the flower. Seconds later, it pops up and flies off directly to the next pad of yellow petals. Seven times it repeats the action — fly in, wiggle, fly off — meticulously and methodically making its way across the turf. No flower is untouched, and the bee’s hind legs are fluffy, coated with yellow pollen. As I refocus on my sandwich, the bee buzzes off into a bush.

Flitting between the flowers, the bee knows exactly where to go. And it’s something that we may soon see a lot less of, as monocultural farming, pesticides we don’t know the full power of, and a panoply of diseases threaten not just wild bees and honeybees, but a chunk of the world’s flora. If you believe the headlines, the decline of bees could have complicated repercussions for us all.

Creating a buzz

On a gloriously sunny day a couple of days after watching the bee flitting from flower to flower in London, I’m at the Center for Behavior and Evolution at Newcastle University meeting Nicola Simcock and Phil Oliver in a laboratory where three undergraduates bustle around, carrying out experiments on the insects. Small bright white boxes of bees, shipped in from Belgium, sit on the side of the lab. Some of the bees are trussed up in harnesses made out of tape on top of test tubes; Simcock shows me the famously long proboscis of the bee by feeding it a sugary solution under a microscope.

Simcock is a Ph.D. student at the university, while Oliver is studying for a master’s degree. The summer months are busy times for bee research. I’m offered a suit — which comes down only to my waist and, I notice, doesn’t include gloves — and taken up to see their hives, located on the roof of a seven-story building on the outskirts of the city.

The university has three hives, and the long British winter has taken its toll on its bee population. I can see the colonies in action as I observe them through my mesh covering: one of the wooden structures has hundreds of bees visibly buzzing around it — a healthy and happy hive. Another seems sparse in comparison, a smattering of bees hovering around it uninterestedly.

The hive has suffered from mites; it also struggled to survive the cold winter. On the plus side, Simcock explains that a city council drive to improve aesthetics has given the university’s bees the pick of a varied collection of food sources.

Most bees have far less selection as across the country (and world) agriculture has moved toward monoculture farming, in which single crops may fill all the square miles within the range of bees of a given hive. Three-quarters of the 97 food plants known to attract bumblebees have been in decline since the 1930s, turfed up in favor of single cash crops for agricultural farms. But, paradoxically, these vast tracts of monocultured farmland are also some of the few remaining large-scale green spaces in some countries, including England. Fields and flower beds have been paved over.

Now that we’re aware of the importance bees have to the human population, government planners have started to pay attention to and even regulate against destructive behavior. “We’re no longer ripping out hedges willy-nilly and plowing up flowers,” says Dave Goulson, a professor of biological sciences at Stirling University, who wrote a book on bees and has been undertaking research into bee declines in the UK. “The wholesale habitat destruction of the 1960s and ’70s has ended, and there are moves to try and make things better.”

“It’s very hard to say what proportion of the problem is due to one thing or another,” Goulson explains further. Neonicotinoids, a category of pesticides we’ll meet in a moment, are partly to blame, he believes, but he disagrees with those who say it’s the main cause. “The bigger picture is habitat loss and all the rest of it,” he says.

“All the rest of it” includes quite a lot, ranging from the destruction of variety and habitat brought about by industrial farming; a mite, the Varroa destructor, that attacks bees; and the habit of leasing out bees, as operators truck hives around the United States and other countries for pollination of monocultured crops. And that’s just a sampling of the challenges a bee and its hive face for basic survival.

Hive mind

If you’ve read any media reports on colony collapse disorder (CCD) or the large die-outs of bees, you’ve likely been drawn to screaming headlines warning of impending doom. The Guardian frets about a “serious threat to crop yields.” The Jerusalem Post advises on “how to save the world food chain.” The New York Times cautions that “fewer bees means smaller harvests and higher food prices.” Just this week, TIME warns of “A world without bees.” All of these advisories are realistic, to an extent, but they’re framed far more alarmingly than the scientific truth.

Bees die. Humans die. Everyone and everything dies, eventually. Commercial apiarists expect to lose about a tenth of their colony a year; it’s their tithe, literally, a situation akin to infant mortality and deaths from diseases that humans saw in the Middle Ages. What has changed is the rate of death.

In the United States in the past half-decade, anywhere from a quarter to a third of bees in commercial colonies have died each year. That’s no longer an acceptable level of death. Higher-than-expected colony losses in Europe have been recorded since the turn of the millennium. A third of all colonies in the UK died out this past winter, and nearly half of all colonies in the north of England didn’t make it through the cold snap. Suddenly they’re not dropping like flies anymore. They’re dropping like bees.

Everyone has a different explanation about the bees. The United States Department of Agriculture says that pathogens are to blame — or is that overcrowding in hives, or parasites such as the Varroa destructor mite?1 Truth is, there’s no single smoking gun. Research is too sparse and knowledge too shallow to properly know how to combat losses. But scientists admit another potential cause could be the use of industrial pesticides known as neonicotinoids.2

Neonicotinoids are one of the newest pesticides, and have been taken up for use by farmers and growers mainly because their toxicity was believed to be lower than other pesticides. The most common usage is to coat seeds with them, which are then sown in farms: rather than spraying pesticides across plants, the theory goes that the plants take up the neonicotinoid from within, reducing collateral damage.

The European Union tends to agree with American researchers worried about these potent chemicals. In April, the EU enacted a two-year ban on neonicotinoid-based pesticides — though four countries abstained, and a further eight voted against the ban, because they didn’t feel the evidence was strong enough. In total, only about half the 27 EU member states voted for the ban, showing the uncertainty around colony collapse disorder.

More than 30 different studies have linked colony decreases to the increased use of neonicotinoid pesticides, yet in a January peer review, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said some of the science doesn’t stand up “due to shortcomings in the available data.” European Union-sponsored bodies are often riddled with bureaucracy, and many of the studies were disqualified because they did not meet EFSA’s high barrier for rigor.

That said, many of the studies carried out show neonicotinoids are bad for bees. The coated seeds grow into fully formed plants that contain the pesticide in their pollen. Bees are daubed with the neonicotinoids, which poisons them.3

That can have deleterious effects on bees: scientists in the UK and Germany have shown that the pesticide can throw a bee’s inner GPS out of whack. Without its navigation system, bees become lost and disoriented. Randolf Menzel, who carried out the navigation research in Germany, was clear: he told the BBC earlier this month that “neonicotinoids are endangering honeybees.” But neonicotinoids aren’t solely responsible for the death of 34 percent of bee colonies in the UK this past winter.

Everything’s in decline. The health of nature — butterflies and birds and, yes, bees — is trending downward. Indeed, on May 25 of this year, wildlife organizations around the UK released a State of Nature report that said as much.

Sixty percent of the species surveyed in the report in the UK have declined in the past half-century. That’s again for a variety of reasons, but one of them is that we tarmac over large areas of greenbelt land, and the bits that remain are devoted to a single crop rather than a wide variety of plants for animals, birds, and insects to feed on. “If you’re going to turn over loads of land to intensive food production,” notes Goulson, “you’re going to have less wildlife all round.” Bees suddenly don’t look all that abnormal in their decline anymore, and the rationale behind their decline becomes much less clear-cut.

Swarming against the current

Back in the Newcastle lab, Simcock is tussling with the paradox that comes with publicizing the bee decline so widely. “The more people are aware of the issues the better,” she tells me, but that doesn’t mean the truth should be overstretched. Overstating the impact of bee decline ought to wake us up to make a change; Simcock actually believes the opposite. At a recent speaking engagement, she met ordinary folks who downplayed the impact.

“I know a lot of people don’t tend to take the declining bee population seriously because of the overhype that, ‘If the bees die, we will die,’” she says.

There certainly would be an impact, agrees Goulson. “Strictly speaking, it’s true that about three-quarters of all crops grown in the world are dependent to some extent on insect pollinators, more often than not bees. That’s undeniable. That’s 75 percent of crop types, but it doesn’t include the really big global crops — maize, wheat, barley, rice, and so on — which is why the 75 percent of crops becomes thirty-odd percent of the actual food we eat.”

Bees contribute $14.6 billion annually to the US economy through their pollination of plants; the California almond crop wouldn’t exist were it not for bees trucked in especially to transport pollen to and from plants. Bret Adee, who claims to be America’s largest bee breeder, has 80,000 colonies that he shifts about. The UK economy is boosted by £440 million ($655 million) a year by bees doing their work.

“Most of the nice things that we eat — most fruits and vegetables — require bees of one sort or another to pollinate,” Goulson continues. “If you wanted a world where you had nothing to eat but porridge and rice, then you’d be fine. But if you like tomatoes and aubergines [eggplant] and grapefruit and so on, then bees are obviously pretty damned important.” It seems unlikely that everyday shoppers, never mind gourmands, would be happy losing their fruit and vegetables. That would have a knock-on effect of limiting the uptake of vitamins and minerals, and be detrimental to our health.

In short, Goulson says, “To say that we would lose a third of our food if we lost bees is probably exaggerating, but it certainly would be completely disastrous for world food production.”

It’s a difficult message to put across, and one to which veterans of the climate change campaign would attest: How do you accurately sum up the damage that could be inflicted in a way that people understand? How do you make it something other than an incalculably, unimaginably large concept?

And more than that, how do you get people to care about what’s going to happen maybe five generations down the line — especially when we can’t swear that we know enough to back up our suppositions?

It’s the end of the world as we know it

Truthfully, no one knows how to spread such a complicated message — let alone how to solve such a complex problem — though plenty of people care.

Simcock is part of one of seven labs in the UK given funding to better understand bees, and she and her colleagues will continue investigating. Goulson’s also trying to learn more, but there is an absolute dearth of data.

“It’s astonishing, really, that we don’t have any kind of good monitoring scheme for bees,” he explains. “We don’t have the data. All this interest in bees, you’d think we would have by now managed to get some kind of good monitoring going on, so that we knew if they were going up or down.” With such little information about the rate of decline, there’s little hope of finding out the cause.

And in the absence of facts, people — and the media — make up their own narrative. It’s true that bees have been declining, and it’s likely that a combination of contributory factors coming together in a perfect storm is to blame. “If you stress bees in three or four different ways at the same time, then they’re likely to die,” says Goulson.

It’s also true that careless misapplication of insecticide can kill off 50,000 bees at a stroke, and that for the past few years the pear farmers of southwest China have been forced to pollinate their orchards by hand. In 2012, scientists from the University of Reading sent out students to hand-pollinate a field. Using that data, they then calculated that to do that for all Britain’s bee-pollinated crops would cost £1.8 billion ($2.8 billion). Our bees are in trouble.

To say we could see the last bee die out in our lifetime, or that our world will go to wrack and ruin, is counterfactual. Something needs to be done, no doubt. But more information, and a dose of realism, is needed before we declare that the bee apocalypse is nigh.

We can’t afford to see a third of the population dying off every year for much longer, though. We can’t afford to leave the problem unchecked. The diversity of our diet relies on it. Livelihoods rely on it. Multibillion-dollar industries spanning continents rely on it.

Our bees are starved of food because we limit the diversity of crops. Pesticides we rely on to keep our harvests healthy are having the opposite effect on bees. Parasites that were once restricted to one area are now in all hives, everywhere, because of our globalized world.4 And the research isn’t there, isn’t funded well enough, to fully comprehend what’s going on.

These days, every time I see a bee burrowing into the cupping petals of a flower, I smile and stand guard, wondering at the miracle of nature.

I think of Dave Goulson and Nicola Simcock in their laboratories, working wonders with limited budgets to try to stop the rot. I think of Randolf Menzel in German fields gluing antennae to the backs of bees. I think of the bees themselves, already burdened with the responsibility of pollinating our world, buckled and broken by disease and chemicals. I think of the bureaucrats in Brussels, and I think of the half-empty hive sitting high above Newcastle city center.

And in the garden next to my kitchen, watching a carefree, healthy bee do its duty, I smile because I may not see this scene that much longer.


  1. The Varroa destructor, a parasite that was linked to Asian bees, moved out of the region after the Second World War. Though apiarists don’t agree on a lot, they do agree that the Varroa mite is the biggest smoking gun there is. 

  2. Neonicotinoids were first brought into use in the 1980s and 1990s. They’re neuroactive pesticides with a chemical makeup similar to nicotine. In the years since their introduction, they’ve become the most widely used pesticide globally. 

  3. Neonicotinoids’ lethality — LD50, a dose strong enough to kill half the bees in a laboratory test — is four nanograms, or four billionths of a gram. At lower doses, as we’ll learn, scientists believe there can be serious neurological effects on bees. 

  4. “We should be a damned sight more careful transporting bees around,” Goulson told me. “Varroa got here with our help. There’s a whole bunch of other bee diseases that we’ve redistributed around the globe. We seem to have introduced European bee diseases to wild bumblebees in the Americas,” he added. 

Chris Stokel-Walker is a UK-based freelance writer for the Economist, the Sunday Times, the BBC, and BuzzFeed.

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