Over the past 30 years, honeybee populations have plummeted 50%. Many factors are contributing to the decline- including systemic pesticides, varroa mites and Nosema Disease- but the greatest threat to the bee’s survival may be the industrial agriculture model that promotes pesticides and monocropping.
When we read about “colony collapse disorder,” we’re hearing about the problems confronting commercial bee-brokers. Natural pollination by wild, resident honeybees and other beneficial insects was the norm only 30 years ago. But natural pollination is no longer possible where traditional habitats have been replaced by weedless, laser-leveled acres planted to a single crop. In California’s Central Valley, vast industrial spreads- artificially maintained by synthetic nitrogen inputs, herbicides and insecticides—are no longer hospitable to native bees, wasps, butterflies or other wildlife.
In May, following the mass deaths of bees and other insects, Germany’s Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety (BVL) suspended use of eight pesticides after it was found that the bees were killed by clothianidin, the active ingredient in Bayer’s Eldado and Poncho pesticides. BVL also suspended use of four of Bayer’s imidacloprid-based pesticides: Antarc, Chinook, Faibel and Gaucho. Products containing neonicotinoids like imidacloprid and clothianidin account for much of Bayer’s annual agrochemical profits. France’s Comité Scientifique et Technique has declared the chemical a “significant risk” to bees.
As wild pollinators were increasingly forced off the land, Big Ag turned to “domesticated” bees. When up to 90% of U.S. commercial bee colonies went into a tailspin last winter, desperate growers paid premium prices to air-freight one billion “guest worker” bees from Australia to pollinate U.S. fields and orchards.
Commercial honeybees are the insect world’s equivalent of migrant labor. Trucked thousands of miles from one field to another, these bees are forbidden to forage on their own. They are only released to service a particular crop—apples, peaches, oranges, melons—and when they do, they are inevitably exposed to a range of chemical residues. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has identified 58 pesticides that are “highly toxic” to bees, including aldicarb, diazinon and malathion.
It might be more accurate to call commercial colonies “prison colonies.” Trucked from state to state, these captive bees are force-fed a diet of high fructose corn syrup and soy protein—a poor substitute for pollen. This cheap, high-fiber, low-protein, junk-food bee feed is derived from genetically modified corn that has been engineered to contain Bt—a bacterial insecticide.
And now more of the honeybees’ native “homeland” in the prairies of the Midwest—historic vistas of pollen-rich asters and goldenrods—are set to be plowed under and monocropped to make corn ethanol to fuel America’s automobiles.
There is an alternative. “This country has 4,500 species of native insects that are potential pollinators,” Gina Covina writes in Terrain magazine. “On the East Coast, where farms are much smaller, more diverse, and broken up by uncultivated land, native insects account for up to 90% of crop pollination.” In Costa Rica, studies have shown coffee yields increase 20% when crops are grown within a kilometer of a forest. In Canada, canola yields increased on farms that preserved 30% of the land as natural habitat.
“Fortunately,” Covina notes, “insects are quick to recolonize formerly dead areas—hedgerows, windbreaks, wetlands, woodlots.” But the survival of Earth’s bees will require a fundamental transition from the industrial agriculture model to the biodiverse ecological model.