If the quintessential ecological battle cry of the seventies was “Save The Whales,” today it is “Save The Bees.” From news headlines to environmental campaigns to alarming documentaries, we’re warned that if the bees go extinct, we’ll go with them.
It makes sense — about 75 percent of crops are reliant on animal pollinators, which are often honeybees. Without them, the theory goes, we’d not only lose $212 billion in global economic value, we could probably say goodbye to apples, almonds, broccoli, cucumbers, peaches, and many other common food items, not to mention honey.
But when it comes to agricultural health, that really isn’t the full picture.
While honeybee hives recently experienced a crash, due to a collection of conditions known as colony collapse disorder, they’ve actually bounced back somewhat. When the U.S. Department of Agriculture began tracking hives in 1947, there were 5.9 million colonies. In 2008, that number had dropped to 2.44 million, but the decline seems to have leveled off — by 2017 colony numbers had risen slightly to 2.67 million.
Worries about the health of honeybees often miss the larger picture. They’re important, but there are many other pollinators out there, including butterflies, bats, hummingbirds, flies, and other bee species. The hyperfocus on honeybees is overshadowing the thousands of other critters essential for a functioning ecosystem. Climate change and habitat loss are still wiping out countless bugs in some areas, an impact that could be felt far beyond our dinner plates. But as this crisis has unfolded, public attention has consistently fixated on the honeybee — leaving other more vulnerable species to suffer in the dark.
The issue may be a lack of familiarity with bee diversity — or, better put, an over-familiarity with a certain species. When we say “honeybee,” rest assured we’re all picturing the same thing — the black- and yellow-striped insect on the cereal box. This is Apis mellifera, or the European honeybee and they are but one of a legion of species.
The multiplicity of bees is astounding. There are more than 20,000 different species displaying a range of colors: everything from metallic blue-green to red-and-black beauties resembling wasps. Most are solitary, not hive-dwellers, occupying dirt or wood and some bees line their nests with a plastic-like excretion. Only seven species of bees make honey.
Honeybees may be insects, but when domesticated, they function as livestock. The European honeybee was first introduced to North America by settlers of the continent in the early 1600s. Native Americans existed for centuries without honeybees, relying on other pollinators to rear their crops. Today, honeybees can even be considered an invasive species in some places.
The Secret Strife of Bees
All the focus on honeybees overlooks other important pollinators, such as bumblebees, many of which are experiencing severe die-offs, some as much as 96 percent of their population. At least one North American species is presumed extinct, while another, the rusty patched bumblebee, Bombus affinis, has been added to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s endangered species list. It’s the first bee in the continental U.S. to be given protections, although the IUCN lists several bees as critically endangered, and more may need help in the near future.
Bumblebees are especially important pollinators due to their size and extra fuzziness, and some have evolved special relationships with flowering plants. Tomatoes, for example, rely on buzz pollination, a behavior done only by certain bees. This is when a bumblebee bites a flower, then vibrates to shake out the pollen.
Before the ‘90s, when they figured out how to domesticate bumblebees, gardeners would wield electric toothbrushes to trick greenhouse tomatoes into pollinating. Now, places like the U.K. import 65,000 non-native bumblebees per year, some of which escape and can survive mild winters, spreading parasites and diseases to other pollinators. Every year in the U.S., beekeepers haul billions of bees to California — otherwise, the state couldn’t pollinate almonds.
“Shuffling these honeybees and bumblebees across the planet, we’re potentially introducing diseases where they haven’t been found before,” says Jonathan Koch, a researcher specializing in ecology and insects at the University of Hawai’i at Hilo. “We’ve also discovered that honeybee viruses can be found in non-honeybee hosts.” While it’s not clear yet if those viruses are causing harm, our over-reliance on honeybees is imperiling a host of native species the world over.
Our reliance on honeybees is puzzling for another, simpler reason: They’re not always that great at it when compared to other species. They are often less efficient pollinators, and can spread disease to other insects. That becomes a problem when enterprising conservationists, aiming to help save the honeybees, erect colonies of their own. Owning a beehive can be a rewarding hobby, if you know what you’re doing, and can significantly improve your crop yield, but at the cost of potentially spreading infections, and even out-competing local species.
“Keeping honeybees for pollinator conservation is like keeping chickens for bird conservation,” says Mace Vaughan, the co-director of the Pollinator Program at the Xerces Society, a non-profit that has partnered with the USDA. Ultimately, we don’t need more honeybees in North America, and in some cases, they can even harm the species that are already there.
“Resource acquisition can be quite high in honeybees, and therefore they can compete with native bees,” Koch says. But whether bees become invasive or not really depends on the area and the available food sources. “Because many species of wild bees may already be under stress from human activities, there is concern that added competition and other interactions with managed honey bees could increase population declines,” according to a recent report in Environmental Entomology.
The consequences for honeybees are serious, but, again, it is the multitude of native pollinators that often have the most to lose from pesticides and other dangers.
Policymakers have started taking steps to mitigate the dangers from pesticides, but they may not be moving quickly enough. Last spring, the European Union banned the most popular class of insecticides, neonicotinoids, which have been implicated in huge bee massacres. The ban will take place at the end of this year, and will exclude greenhouses. But many experts have expressed concern with other pesticides that the ban ignores, including herbicides and fungicides, which can also impact bee health.
One 2009 survey of nearly 900 honeybee hive samples found 129 different pesticides and metabolites, averaging six detections per sample. (Only 16 samples were pesticide-free.) The researchers even found DDT and other chlorinated pesticides. “That should have been banned when I was a kid,” says Diana Cox-Foster, research leader of the USDA’s pollinating insect research unit in Logan, Utah, who was not involved in the research. “So I was really shocked.”
Humans have found ways to do without pollinators, although it’s not always been ideal. In some rural areas of China, the overuse of pesticides wiped out bees and other insects, and apple farmers manually pollinated their fruit until it became too costly and labor-intensive. The trees were eventually cut down and replaced with easier to manage plants.
There’s even some buzz (sorry) about tiny drones that can do the work of bees, but so-called “materially engineered artificial pollinators” like the RoboBee have yet to hit the mainstream and come with their own set of problems.
We can start hand-pollinating our orchards, but we can’t hand-pollinate the whole planet. We stand to lose all flowers, vegetables, fruits, natural fibers, and much more. Habitat loss means these pollinators, not just honeybees, have nowhere to nest, mate, or forage either. Those ripples would be felt up the food chain, including by humans. In other words, if pollinators go, it all goes — so we need to broaden and diversify our conservation efforts.
“We do need to be concerned about the bees, but we still need to be strategic in figuring out which ones really need help,”says Elaine Evans, an extension professor in the Department of Entomology at University of Minnesota. “People think either the honeybee is going extinct, which is not true, or think they can help honeybees by keeping bees themselves. This actually sometimes does more harm than good.”
Beeline To The Future
There is some good news: Safeguarding pollinators is one of the easiest, most accessible ways to make a difference on our environment. You might not be able to feed starving polar bears, but even if you just have a window box, you can plant native flowers, use less pesticides around your home, and, if you have a lawn, consider replacing it with an abundant garden complete with places for insects to rest and hide. Short-cut grass is basically a desert for pollinators, so avoid it. Using bricks, wood and hollow sticks, you can also build an insect hotel where little bugs can happily live, although this may not always help native insects.
“Everybody who owns a piece of property can add plants that provide nectar and pollen,” Vaughan says. “Many people are doing that already and it doesn’t take much to have a benefit.”
But ultimately, the biggest help to pollinators will come from policy changes. In 2016, the Obama Administration introduced the “Pollinator Partnership Action Plan,” which was dedicated to helping honeybees and monarch butterflies. It also aimed to “restore or enhance 7 million acres of land for pollinators over the next 5 years.” So far, 700,000 acres of habitat have been put aside for this purpose, according to Vaughan. But, of course, things with the current administration remain quite uncertain when it comes to environmental protections.
For now, the USDA is researching ways to eliminate stresses for pollinators by trying to better control pathogens and parasites and studying the ways insects live, while the Environmental Protection Agency has also developed guidelines for monitoring pesticide risks.
“I don’t think we’re doing enough fast enough, but the flipside of that is that we’re doing something,” Vaughan says.