With American beekeepers losing as much as 45 per cent of their colonies per year, surely by now you’ve heard the alarming stories that bees are going extinct. But while it’s true that bees are dying off at a staggering rate, it’s not quite the end-of-bees scenario some would have you believe.
The first thing that needs to be addressed when talking about the bee-pocalypse – or colony collapse disorder (CCD) as it’s more commonly known – is that it’s a phenomenon affecting agricultural bee colonies, rather than wild colonies.
And while you’d be forgiven for thinking agricultural bee colonies’ primary means of creating their owner an income is via honey, the reality is that these colonies make bread from pollinating.
The old saying ‘the birds and the bees’ has taken a more adult meaning these days, but it stems from the fact many of the world’s plants are pollinated by our winged friends. For around 50 years, many beekeepers have made a living by creating colonies which can easily be packed onto the back of trucks and moved around to where certain crops need to be pollinated. Sure they make honey and beeswax as well, but the real dough comes from pollinating.
As such, these bees live a remarkably transient lifestyle, and not a particularly healthy one. They may spend a month pollinating blueberries, before being shipped off to work on pollinating almonds, then on to oranges.
“It’s a very unnatural thing for a honeybee to be locked up and shipped in a lorry from Florida to Maine and back again each year,” bee specialist Dave Goulson told NY Magazine (in a 6000-word feature that’s really worth reading).
“That must stress them out. And it means they’re being given a very odd diet. For a month, they have nothing to eat but almond-blossom pollen and nectar, and then they’re taken to Maine for the blueberry, and then citrus in Florida.
“It’s a bit like if you had nothing to eat but chocolate and the next month you had nothing to eat but potatoes. You’d probably be pretty unhealthy.”
So diet and lifestyle factors are at play. But the bigger issue, at least according to beekeeper Dave Hackenberg – who President Barack Obama has dubbed ‘Pollinator-in-chief’ due to his prominent role in raising awareness about CCD – is pesticides.
“It’s no mystery. I can take bees and put them out in the woods and they’ll turn out just fine and dandy. In areas where there’s no pesticides, they’ll turn out fine and dandy. Get a map out and look at it. There’s no mystery. It’s just follow the money trail.”
Hackenberg’s take on it is that while the pesticide companies may find that their product doesn’t have an affect on bees in a laboratory setting, this doesn’t take into account the bees’ lifestyle – living on a diet of a singular foodstuff, being moved around on the back of trucks breathing in highway fumes, and spreading pollen covered in ‘safe’ pesticides for a month before moving onto a different kind of ‘safe’ pesticide.
It may not add up in a laboratory setting, but that surely that can’t be healthy for any animal.
As a result, Hackenberg has opted out of the pollination side of beekeeping, instead keeping his bees stationery in Pennsylvania, making money from honey, and guaranteeing his bees a decent standard of living for their short lives.
“It’s got to the point having healthy bees is more important than having a paycheque,” he said. “You get tired of having dead beehives.”
Ultimately, the idea of no more honey on our morning toast as a result of bees going extinct isn’t really on the cards – “feral bee colonies are doing fairly well,” said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, the project director of BeeInformed. But it could be that farmers are going to have to find a new way of pollinating their crops.
“I just don’t think we’re worried about honeybees going extinct. But I think I am worried about commercial beekeepers going extinct,” said vanEngelsdorp.
“They’re hurting — losing 50 per cent of their colonies every year, you’re going to be hurting. A lot of these are family businesses. They’re not doing this because it makes economic sense anymore. They’re doing it because of love.
“I don’t know how long you can keep a family fed on love.”