As a wise bee once said “Larry, bees have never been afraid to change the world. I mean, what about Bee Columbus, Bee Gandhi, Bee-Jesus?” (Barry B. Benson). Although these are merely fictional characters from a movie, the first part of the quote stands true. Bee’s do change our world. Believe it or not, you have a bee to thank for every one in three bites of food you eat.
After all, honey bees—wild and domestic—perform about 80 percent of all pollination worldwide. Grains are primarily pollinated by the wind, but fruits, nuts and vegetables are also pollinated by bees. Seventy out of the top 100 human food crops—which supply about 90 percent of the world’s nutrition—are pollinated by bees. Beekeepers across the United States lost 44 percent of their honey bee colonies during the year spanning from April 2015 to April 2016, according to the latest preliminary results of an annual nationwide survey.
These are some important stats to “chew” on. Without bees, our lovely forests and plains would look a lot like a scene from an apocalyptic movie. Not to mention the extensive food crisis that would arise if the bees go extinct, which is not that outlandish to think about. Just because you see a bee buzz by your nose while you are outside, does not mean that bee populations aren’t on the decline. Already, the number of managed honey bee colonies has plummeted from 5 million in the 1940s to about 2.66 million today, according to the USDA. Honey bees face an onslaught of threats. While the new survey notes that the parasitic varroa mite (which a recent multi-year study found is “far more abundant than previously thought”) is a “clear culprit“ in colony collapse, malnutrition from habitat loss and pesticides are also likely contributors. The EPA, for example, is currently reviewing neonicotinoids, a common insecticide, after a study found the chemicals can impair bumblebees’ learning and memory, as well as blunt their ability to forage.
But it is not too late to help. Many other nations have already enacted regulations to help save bee populations. Ecological farming is the overarching new policy trend that will stabilize human food production, preserve wild habitats, and protect the bees. The nation of Bhutan has led the world in adopting a 100 percent organic farming policy. Mexico has banned genetically modified corn to protect its native corn varieties. Eight European countries have banned genetically modified crops and Hungary has burned more than 1,000 acres of corn contaminated with genetically modified varieties. In India, scientist Vandana Shiva and a network of small farmers have built an organic farming resistance to industrial agriculture over two decades.
Organic farming is nothing new. It is the way most farming has been done throughout human history. Ecological farming resists insect damage by avoiding large monocrops and preserving ecosystem diversity. Ecological farming restores soil nutrients with natural composting systems, prevents soil loss from wind and water erosion, and avoids pesticides and chemical fertilizers. By restoring bee populations and healthier bees, ecological agriculture improves pollination, which in turn improves crop yields. Ecological farming takes advantage of the natural ecosystem services, water filtration, pollination, oxygen production, and disease and pest control.
In May, the European Commission adopted a two-year ban on the three neonicotinoid pesticides, and later added the non-neonicotinoid fipronil. Scientists will use the two years to assess the recovery rate of the bees and a longer-term ban on these and other pesticides. Meanwhile, the United States dithers and supports the corporations that produce and market the deadly pesticides. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) continues to allow the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, in spite of a U.S. Department of Agriculture report warning about the dangers of the bee colony collapse.
Honey bees are a keystone, indicator species. Their decline points to (and will likely accelerate) broader environmental degradation. Scientists point to pollinator population declines as a disproportionately important piece of the current collapse in biodiversity. However, bees’ critical role as pollinators means that attending to their health and intervening on their behalf presents a unique opportunity for bolstering the health and resilience of both our environment and our agricultural economy. As an indicator species, honey bees are sounding an alarm that we ignore at our peril. Among their lessons: industrial agriculture has gone off the rails. The pesticide treadmill has kicked into high gear with a class of dangerous systemic pesticides — while regulators were asleep at the switch. As our next President, it is your responsibility to make sure the well being of our nation stays in tact, and to do so, you must: save the bees.