Research into Bee Disappearances Points to Industrial Agriculture

Bees are one of the most beloved insects on the planet, and possess unmatched crop pollination abilities. Their specialized adaptations have dazzled scientists and enthusiasts for centuries. However, these celebrated insects are disappearing at concerning rates. The reasons have much to do with modern agriculture.

The Rusty Patched Bumblebee, A once common species, was listed as federally endangered in 2017, after Populations declined by about 87 percent in 20 years¹ . Following urgent petitions signed by food safety and conservation groups in June 2019, four native bumblebees were added to the California Endangered Species List² ³. Honey bee surveys commissioned by the USDA, the University of Maryland and the Bee Informed Partnership, have captured the world’s attention by publishing annual managed honey bee losses. According to Preliminary 2019–2020 survey results, average honey bee colony losses measured in at a staggering 43.7 percent⁴ ,compared to a 10 percent historic loss⁵.

It’s not just bees. Other invertebrates have seen a dramatic decline in population within recent decades. Research published in a 2014 issue of the journal, Science concluded in the last 35 years, invertebrate populations have decreased by 45-percent⁶. Disappearances at the base of the food chain spell trouble for insectivorous birds, frogs and lizards.

Here’s How

Buzz Word Number One: Monoculture

A monoculture is the cultivation of one specific type of crop, often for many consecutive harvests. Monocultures of wind (as opposed to bee) pollinated crops like wheat or corn have eliminated once abundant weeds and wildflowers, causing sources of nectar to decline. All over the world, intensive agriculture in tandem with habitat loss from human development, has eliminated meadow habitat dramatically. Consequently, many native pollinators today grow hungry foraging longer and farther in search of food.​

Monoculture methods foster identical plants at a given root depth, limiting nutrient quality in the soil. The same nutrients for chosen commodity crops are required many times over without ample crop rotation. Such demands work counter to organic, common sense methods in permaculture by eliminating biological diversity. Biological systems often already have in place a natural sort of checks and balances system, whereby various insects, legumes, bacteria, cover plants, reptiles or birds contribute to the soil in harmony. No one species exceeds in population or impedes on the contributions of the other.

Common sense farming, on the contrary, is regenerative. In a single plot, multiple crops are harvested intermittently, sometimes with needed breaks in between. Only certain crops contain microorganisms to help nitrogen find its way from the air into the soil to produce ammonia and natural nitrogen compounds for plant assimilation; a process known as nitrogen fixing.

In monocultures, acres of identical crops attract pests on already nutrient-depleted soil. This is where synthetic chemicals like herbicides, pesticides, genetically modified, herbicide-resistant seeds and fertilizers come into play.

Buzz Word Number Two: Neonic

Neonicotinoids, also known as “neonics” are insecticides structurally similar to nicotine. These chemicals first appealed to the agricultural industry in the early 2000s as a less dangerous for vertebrates following bans on DDT. Neonics are meant to target pests, like aphids and can be sprayed directly onto the leaves of crops, including apples, cherries and pears.

In a perceived advancement of agriculture, farmers began coating the agent into crop seeds to limit the need to contact spray repeatedly. In this case, the agent is spread during uptake throughout plant tissue- from the leaves to the stem. It becomes present within both the nectar and pollen. Bees gather and transport pollen while extracting nectar for their dietary needs. thereby ingesting the highly toxic compound while foraging.

Neonicotinoids are the most widely used pesticide in the world, and are soluble in water. There are 6 main varieties, which are present in home garden products and industrial seeds alike. Urban and rural use has spread neonics, by way of impervious surfaces and accumulation in water bodies near treated sites. The initial pests meant to die from contamination are not the only species affected, in what’s known as non-target exposure. In soil, the half-life of Neonicotinoids, (whereby concentrations decrease by one half) is 1000 days.

Beyond the target pests and bees, aquatic invertebrates and birds are threatened by neonics. A 2017 study published in Nature by researchers at the University of Saskatchewan found that the equivalent of just four treated canola seeds are enough to cause migrating songbirds to lose their sense of direction and experience severe decreases in body mass⁷.

How exactly do they harm bees?

Neonicotinoids have been found to impact bees at all levels, from individual cells to entire colonies. Bees are especially vulnerable because they have a greater number of receptors than most insects. Neonics are nerve toxins that wreak havoc on the central nervous system. Effects on bees vary based on the neonic, but include disrupted foraging ability, brood cell loss, female colony loss and death⁸.

Perhaps the most definitive science comes from the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, composed of top conservation scientists from around the world, led by the IUCN. Hailed as the world’s most comprehensive scientific review of ecological impacts, synthesized more than 500 studies from 2014, concluded that extensive and routine application of neonics in agriculture is causing large-scale environmental contamination, impacts on pollinators and other insects and a significant threat to biodiversity overall⁹,¹⁰.​

One published flight-study dosed the common eastern bumblebee with one of the main neonics in use, imidacloprid. Researchers noted that those who didn’t land on flowers following high dosage, “were often seen to fly or run around flowers for 5–10 minutes, followed by crawling into a corner of the arena and remaining motionless”¹¹.

Honey Bees exposed to Thiamethoxam through both acute and chronic doses have developed significantly decreased flight duration, distance, and velocity¹². In an experiment¹³ where honey bees were doses with THX and released 1 km away from their nests, return rates of dosed bees were significantly less than those of control bees. ​

Groundbreaking research out of the University of Guelph in Canada has also linked low doses of exposure to the neonic, clothianidin with a decrease in self-grooming behavior of honey bees who are infected with Varroa mites¹⁴. Self grooming is a crucial behavior needed for bees to fend off the mites and the deadly viruses they carry, like Deformed Wing Virus. Varroa mites are the most frequently cited theory behind the cause of colony collapse disorder¹⁵.

A unique study¹⁶ in Ontario also found that neonicotinoid residues in soil pose a high risk to nesting bees, like female hoary squash bees, who experienced trouble constructing a nest within the Cucurbita-crop growing systems.

Sadly, early evidence indicates that honeybees and bumblebees alike are unable to taste three major neonicotinoids (clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam) through their proboscis¹⁷, and that species like the honeybee and buff-tailed bumblebee even prefer to forage on crops treated with IMD or TMX, although these neonics cause them to eat less food overall¹⁸.

Buzz word Number Three: Pollination Service Industry

In industrial agriculture, modern bees are boxed and shipped to provide pollinator services across the U.S. A honey bee may be raised in North Dakota, before it’s taken to Florida to pollinate citrus in the Winter, and moved again to California in Spring to pollinate almond trees¹⁹. Studies published in the Journal of Apicultural Research have found that the transportation of bees and the demands of the pollination service industry lead to increased infection rates of the fatal parasite Nosema Ceranae in worker honey bees²⁰. It’s easy to imagine how stressed bees congregating in one location might increase the spread of disease.

Utilizing these services from non-native honey bees also displaces native pollinators, like bumblebees, mining bees, carpenter or squash bees. There are more than 4000 native species of bees across the U.S.

All bees need specific nutrients in shifting proportions according to the season and hive specific needs. Nutrient deficiency can play a massive role in both shipped honey bees and local pollinators alike. Without the proper diet, bees cannot fight off infections, parasites or exposure to insecticides. Research has found that bees that pollinate on a wider variety of plants (polyfloral diets) have a stronger immune system²¹.

Like with humans, maintaining a proper diet needed to fight disease comes down to nutrients. The nutritional implications of in-service pollination were perhaps best exemplified by Ecologist at the University of Leeds, Bill Kunin, cited in an article written for Knowable, a popular science magazine. Bill uses the example of apple orchard pollination services. He argues that, although an orchard may produce plenty of pollen and nectar, the pollen is, “nutritionally very one-sided”²². The orchard may have only a few of the ten essential amino acids insects need. Ultimately, Bill concludes that it would not be possible for a bee to raise a brood on apple pollen alone.​

To recap; Honey bees are fed a limited, nutrient-poor diet and transported with millions of other bees across the county. With compromised immunity from dietary deficiency, they’re more susceptible to infectious parasites, and this is all before acute exposure to insect killing nerve toxins. Native pollinators, on the other hand have lost a major source of food (native flowers), been displaced by honey bee agriculture and exposed to toxic insecticides through non-target contamination.

What’s beeing done?

In the European Union, three neonicotinoids — clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam, have been banned on flowering crops since 2013 for their adverse effect on pollinators. In 2018, the European Commission voted in favor of extending the ban to all field crops pending scientific review by the European Food Safety Authority on the impacts to both domestic honey bees and wild pollinators²³.

In the U.S. the House of Representatives, The Save American Pollinators Act, HR 1337 is stuck in Subcommittee. Versions of the bill have existed since 2013, but the reintroduced measure would simply require that the EPA create a Pollinator Protection Board, with an independent review process on pesticides, whereby insecticides like neonicotinoids must be deemed safe before being continued. Setting aside the time to ensure research is conducted on individual substances might prevent biologically costly mistakes down the line.

Suggestions for Big Agriculture

Suggestion 1. Let meadows supplement farmland

The shipping of non-native honey bees for serviced pollination comes with a large transportation footprint, and an even larger ecological barrier for struggling bee populations. One simple solution with high returns is to plant meadows adjacent to key crops within commercial farms.

Studies on blueberry farming have concluded that, “provision of forage habitat for bees adjacent to pollinator‐dependent crops” can lead to higher yields while conserving wild pollinators in otherwise, “resource‐poor agricultural landscapes”²⁴.

Sweeping initiatives to plant meadows among monoculture farms for natives bees could decrease population declines from loss of nutrients and loss of habitat.

Suggestion 2. It pays to use cover crops

Cover crops are plants, like clovers or alfalfa that grow before and after a commoditized crop to add nutrients to the soil. Cover crops also provide natural buffers against floods, droughts, erosion, compaction, pests and more. Best of all- they attract pollinators.

From a purely economic standpoint, cover crops make sense. They have been shown to increase crop yields on existing monocultures. During the fall of 2012, farmer surveys from the Conservation Technology Information Center throughout the midwest region demonstrated how corn planted after cover crops had a 9.6% increase in yield compared to control fields without them24. Soybean yields were also improved by 11.6% following cover crops²⁵. What’s more, the cover crops were even more effective in the hardest hit drought areas of the Corn Belt.

Suggestion 3. Local, seasonal, organic

Consumers who choose organic crops offer great hope for dying bees, in an otherwise unstable market. Buying local, seasonal and organic decreases the strain on the global food industry to produce and ship chemically dependent products. One successful paradigm, growing across the U.S., is Community Supported Agriculture.

Buzz Word Number Four: Community Supported Agriculture

A model example of the “eat local” movement is community supported agriculture (CSA). The premise behind this alternative farming practice rests upon local consumers providing an initial investment in a nearby farm, say $400, in exchange for a size-specific, weekly assortment of harvested crops.

Let’s say a couple in the northeast buys a moderately sized basket plan for $400 to last them from May until November. In a sense, the couple shares the uncertainty by investing up front, but likewise has a stake in receiving seasonal, fresh organic produce. The family is rewarded for their investment with a practical agricultural experience. Shareholders are also invited to visit farm gatherings at least once per season in order to witness firsthand how their food was grown. Social scientists have coined the phrase, “enchanting ethical consumerism”²⁶. to describe CSAs, because they offer something new in otherwise convenience-oriented, intensive global food systems.

The farmer is also rewarded in this model. Beyond the cash flow, farmers are provided with a much-needed sense of freedom from the pressures associated with delocalized markets. There is an implicit understanding that options are seasonal and shares are finite, which allows the farmer to utilize more organic methods to feed their community. Without too much demand for a single type of unblemished crop, the farmer can return to a permaculture style of farming, cultivating crops specific to the consumer’s ecoregion without the use of heavy pesticides, herbicides or forced pollination services.

To find CSAs near you, visit https://www.localharvest.org/csa/

Your Front Lawn

When it comes to monocultures, few think about the largest monoculture- the front lawn. With several million acres of front lawns, turf grass is America’s largest irrigated crop²⁷. Therefore, solving the issue of monocultures extends to everyday homeowners looking to rekindle their relationship with nature.

Utilizing a front lawn for flowering trees and organic wildflower landscaping doesn’t just send an esthetically pleasing message, it attracts bees, butterflies and songbirds to the home. To convert a lawn, the first step is to stop mowing, except for a pathway or two. Then, one can embark on identifying the plant species growing within their lawn. In order to eliminate invasive species organically, it’s best to try boiling water or an organic vinegar solution. Then, to plant diverse natives of your choice with patience.

Several states also have volunteers from extensive Master Gardener programs who are able to identify tough species diagnose pesky garden issues. Most master gardeners consider synthetic approaches a last resort. In time, pollinators could make a true recovery with the native front lawn method.

Like many environmental issues facing society this century, the decline of bee populations comes from a multitude of societal decisions posing unintended ecological consequences. But make no mistake; the solutions are out there. From the Save America’s Pollinators Act, to redesigning farmland, to reclaiming our own front lawns- no option is too small to bring the bees back from perilous decline. Our collective efforts can add up to a massive amount of influence, capable of preserving key biological systems throughout the world.

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Writer, Researcher and Civil Servant Reporting on Environmental Responsibility

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