Save the Honeybee, Sterilize the Earth
March 3, 2015 9:40 PM   Subscribe

The state of the bees. "For the past seven years, as has been widely reported, honeybees have been dying at an alarming rate. Yet today there are slightly more hives in the country than before the die-offs began. That’s because beekeeping families like the Brownings have moved beyond panic and begun quietly adjusting to a strenuous way of doing business, one that requires constant monitoring, treatment, supplemental feeding, rapid replacement of dead hives, and grudging participation in an agricultural system that grows increasingly inhospitable to the bees it needs to survive."
posted by Dynex (22 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
I grew up a swarm chaser. My father was a hobbyist beekeeper. I'm familiar with supplementation and medication of bees, but to have it as such a matter of course due to loss of forage and insecticides and the practice of monoculture...
posted by Mister Cheese at 10:05 PM on March 3, 2015


Come for the description of bee poo, stay for the fascinating analysis!
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:56 AM on March 4, 2015


im really glad humans are picking up the slack, but those bee die-offs are profoundly disturbing. one extremely vital little cog in the ecological machine that no one seems to care about.
posted by young_son at 3:43 AM on March 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


so honeybees are not native to North or South America? What were the pollinators of the pre-European age?
posted by parmanparman at 4:12 AM on March 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


There are many pollinating insects, and a few pollinating birds even. We just don't like them as much because they don't make delicious sweet sticky hunny for our tumblies.
posted by idiopath at 4:16 AM on March 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


Is it really still cheaper to do all this hiring and shipping? At some point it must begin to pay the almond growers to plant a few alternative crops and keep their own bees.

I dare say they know their own business best and have done the sums, but you wonder.
posted by Segundus at 4:19 AM on March 4, 2015


The problem is that whatever is killing the honey bees (pesticides, diseases, loss of habitat, etc) is also affecting all the native bees and pollinators. Monocultures are essentially wastelands, whether they are soy or almonds.
posted by lydhre at 5:02 AM on March 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


Bees are special though, because some species have the right buzz which makes pollination more efficient.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 5:09 AM on March 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


RobotVoodooPower: in fact it's the US native solitary non-hive non-honey bees that mostly use buzz pollination, honeybees don't use it much.
posted by idiopath at 5:18 AM on March 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


Also, as the article points out, monocultures like the almond fields can't use natural pollination because no organism could support such a short period of pollination of a massive number of flowers, followed by nothing.
posted by idiopath at 5:32 AM on March 4, 2015 [5 favorites]


"For many beekeepers, almonds are the first stop on an annual cross-country pollination circuit. They drop their hives off in California and for two weeks their bees fly from blossom to blossom, fertilizing flowers that four months later will turn into almost $5 billion worth of nuts. When the petals fall the beekeepers reclaim their hives and drive to the next crop. Some go to blueberries in Maine or apples in Washington; others go to cranberries in Wisconsin or cherries in Oregon. ... This system operates more or less unnoticed by the general public."

Until you see signs on I-95 warning "ROLL UP WINDOWS BECAUSE BEES."
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:43 AM on March 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


im really glad humans are picking up the slack, but those bee die-offs are profoundly disturbing. one extremely vital little cog in the ecological machine that no one seems to care about.

One of far too many, I'm afraid. It looks like we're not going into space, at least not this time around. Instead we're going to solve all our socio-political and technological problems by retreating back to pre-industrial pocket civilizations that will re-build along different lines until one of them takes another stab at global modernity.
posted by Naberius at 7:11 AM on March 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


Ethanol production (previously) is somewhat linked to the monarch butterfly's decline too, as it converted milkweed habitat (and other forage plants which bees like) into corn fields. It's like 21st century slash-and-burn.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 7:13 AM on March 4, 2015


I sort of hate talking about this stuff, because it makes me sound like a fringe-y whacko type, but... as a beekeeper who has studied food system planning, I really honestly feel that large-scale monoculture farming is something that works great until it doesn't, and that relying on it to feed the entire world is a huge disaster waiting to happen. Not because GMOs are evil, not because of corn syrup in everything, not even because of the evils of large-scale animal farming - but just because it's way more fragile than people seem willing to admit. And if something fucks it up - like, for example, if the combo of constant stress and poor diet and exposure to billions of other bees from all over the country carrying god knows how many parasites does a number on our honeybees - well, then that's millions and millions of people fucked.

I don't think local farming is 'the solution,' but I think it's a lot more necessary than people think. I think smaller-scale local foods should account for a hell of a lot more of our diet, which would have the side benefits of costing way less in fossil fuels and would also frequently mean better conditions for food animals. But mostly, it would mean that a horrible blight or drought in x region wouldn't torpedo the entire food production system.
posted by showbiz_liz at 8:23 AM on March 4, 2015 [33 favorites]


Doesn't sound fringe-y and whacko to me. You're essentially pointing to a Single Point of Failure and looking around saying "Uh, Guys ...?"

as it converted milkweed habitat ... into corn fields.

And, speaking as someone who has tried repeatedly, asclepias (milkweed) is alot harder to cultivate than would seem from its puffy seedpod. If anyone has any suggestions, please memail me.
posted by eclectist at 9:05 AM on March 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


I don't think local farming is 'the solution,' but I think it's a lot more necessary than people think. I think smaller-scale local foods should account for a hell of a lot more of our diet, which would have the side benefits of costing way less in fossil fuels and would also frequently mean better conditions for food animals. But mostly, it would mean that a horrible blight or drought in x region wouldn't torpedo the entire food production system.
I agree with what showbiz_liz is saying. I wonder if the solution though isn't more along the lines of everyone having some skills for providing for themselves. Not self sufficiency or anything, but the ability to grow some basic vegetables and freeze/can/dry them so you've got some on hand almost year round. Droughts and other stuff that interferes with the food supply usually seems to have an impact in terms of prices. It's not that you can't but strawberries or broccoli, it's that it's expensive this year because of weather/bugs/market changes/etc. And this in turn really hits people who are struggling the hardest, and sets the people in the middle back too.

And the way to prevent that from happening is to make sure you've got the skills and ability to sort of hedge things on your own. Most of the cost associated with gardening (or sewing or food preservation or other skills) is in getting things set up and of course the cost of any early mistakes. Once you've got it down it can be very inexpensive to do. So it's always best to get going before it's an issue. Then if things are going great, you're just saving a little extra on your grocery bill, but if things aren't going great you have something to keep it from turning into a major problem for you.

And anyway, gardening and what not is fun!
posted by scififan at 9:14 AM on March 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


everyone having some skills for providing for themselves

I've always enjoyed gardening, but I don't look forward to hand-pollinating my personal 1/4 acre of food. And deciding whether I can justify feeding meat to carnivorous pets when my neighbor's children are going hungry.
posted by amtho at 10:04 AM on March 4, 2015


Factory farms are in a big race to the bottom. They don't want to leave land fallow, plant clover and milkweed, reduce pesticides, etc., because they're afraid the farms that don't behave sensibly like that might make more short-term money.

Regulation is the only way to go. And raise tariffs on imports whose producers don't do likewise.
posted by pracowity at 10:05 AM on March 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


There are many pollinating insects, and a few pollinating birds even. We just don't like them as much because they don't make delicious sweet sticky hunny for our tumblies.
There are also pollinating, nectar-feeding bats! Mangoes, bananas, and guavas are apparently the big cultivated crops they pollinate, though, and none of those are particularly relevant to North American diets except bananas. And those don't need pollinators, the way we farm them, which is its own problem but not one that rests on the bats.

(Bumblebees are, IIRC, just as important to agricultural pollination as honeybees are; they're just not quite as easy to manage as honeybees are since queens only live for a year before dying, so you can't maintain hives so easily. They're also not nearly as portable as honeybees, so declines in bumblebee populations are a bit of a problem.)

I've started growing bee-friendly native plants outside my apartment in the hopes of giving bees and other pollinators--including native bees, not just honeybees--something to eat besides monoculture. It seems to be working, inasmuch as my salvias wind up covered with helpful, delighted bees in the summer. Plus they're super pretty.

One larger-scale solution I've seen that interests me is the idea of creating some long-term local support for pollinators by maintaining strips of local wildflowers that bloom at various times of the year near crop fields. It helps give local pollinators of any species a boost, plus it helps other species as well while being relatively inexpensive to maintain. I know there are some people conducting research on how effective this is, but I'm not sure if there's definitive data in support of it yet. Either way, it seems like a good idea.
posted by sciatrix at 10:26 AM on March 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


It really seems insane for a gigantic, mostly temperate country to rely almost entirely on one place for fresh produce.
posted by Small Dollar at 11:21 AM on March 4, 2015


showbiz_liz: "because it makes me sound like a fringe-y whacko type, ... I really honestly feel that large-scale monoculture farming is something that works great until it doesn't"

Not even a little bit fringe
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:19 PM on March 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


sciatrix, another benefit of inserting strips of "weeds" (ie, native prairie flora) within fields of crops is that it greatly reduces topsoil loss, which is another huge problem in agriculture today.
posted by lydhre at 1:09 PM on March 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


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