To pollinate California's huge monocultural almond farms bees are trucked in from all over the US, even flown in from Australia, because there's not the quantity or diversity of plants to sustain wild bee colonies or wild pollinators. Photo: Steve Corey via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
Bee collapse is the result of their enslavement in industrial monocultures
Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
2nd May 2015
Bee 'colony collapse disorder' cannot be ended by easy technofixes, writes Allan Stromfeldt Christensen. The real problem is the systematic abuse of bees in vast industrial monocultures, as they are trucked or flown thousands of miles from one farm to the next, treated with insecticides and antibiotics, and fed on 'junk food'.
Stuck on a diet of almond nectar, or blueberry nectar, or whatever the next crop may be, honeybees are forced to feed on a homogeneous diet - like one where humans eat bananas for three weeks, then broccoli for one week, carrots for two weeks, and so on.
Over the past several years there's been a steadily growing awareness that a problem exists with our honeybee populations.
Although not quite a household term, what has been called 'colony collapse disorder' (CCD) has evoked enough concern that a chorus of observers have suggested in various ways that if honeybees go the way of the dodo bird, so do us humans.
These warnings stem from what I'd say are two main understandings of the situation.
First off is the fact that honeybees are used to pollinate about one-third of the food we eat, be it directly by pollinating vegetables, fruit, and nut trees, or by pollinating plants such as clover which get eaten by herbivores and so indirectly supply us with meat, milk and other animal products.
Secondly, there is the more general 'canary in the coalmine' interpretation that posits that if we can't manage to live in this world in a manner conducive to the existence of our honeybees, what does that ultimately say about our chances? That is, if our honeybees can't live in the toxic milieu we force them into, will we ultimately be able to?
The real problem - industrial agriculture
However, while CCD poses a significant problem, the sensationalist reactions that such occurrences evoke have effectively clouded over the much greater issue of industrial beekeeping - or in other words, that honeybees are generally confined to living out their lives amongst fields of monocultures.
With the creation of monocultures encompassing hundreds and sometimes thousands of acres, farms are no longer able to provide the living environment necessary to maintain wild honeybee colonies.
Although, say, a large blueberry 'farm' may provide an immense supply of flowers for nectar and pollen, being a monoculture means that there is only one plant, and this sole plant may only flower for a few weeks or even a few days of the year.
This doesn't provide enough time for the honeybees to collect their needed supplies for the remainder of the year while the monoculture fields are essentially floral deserts. It also eliminates the various 'wild pollinators' from bumblebees to beetles, who are likewise unable to survive amongst the dearth of flowers.
In fact, there are now parts of China where bees have already gone extinct, requiring apple orchards to employ between 20 and 25 people to pollinate a hundred trees - something wild pollinators or a couple of hives worth of bees would normally do.
But rather than being generally seen as an example of bad farming and something to rectify, these circumstances have resulted in a whole new industry of their own, for honeybee pollination has become big business indeed.
Can pollinate, will travel ...
Owing to its status of quasi domestication (I say 'quasi' since honeybees aren't really domesticated but rather retain their wildness while inhabiting artificial domains we provide for them), the honeybee has become an ideal pollinator to be shifted around in order to cater to the whims of monocultures.
In fact, large beekeepers now make most of their money from 'pollination services' rather than from sales of honey or other bee products.
In an area encompassing roughly 17,000 acres in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia, approximately one-fifth of the world's blueberries are grown requiring almost 70,000 hives for pollination, coming from all over BC and Alberta.
That however pales in comparison to the massive mono-forest of roughly 600,000 acres in the central valley of California that grows about 82% of the world's almonds.
In three weeks of February every year, more than 1 million hives (of 2.5 million in the US, down from a peak of 6 million in the 1950s) make their way from as far away as New England and 38 other states in order to pollinate the crop. They are even added to by hives flown in from Australia on 747 jumbo jets to supplement declining hive numbers.
What results is a massive bee slum where all sorts of microbes and parasites from around the country get passed around, the bees none the better for it all due to their already compromised immune systems. Why might they be compromised?
Stuck on a diet of almond nectar, or blueberry nectar, or whatever the next crop may be, while the individual nectar and pollen from these crops may be healthy forms of food, honeybees are forced to feed on a homogeneous diet - resembling one where humans eat only bananas for three weeks, then broccoli for one week, carrots for two weeks, and so on.
The result is a kind of rotational mono diet that lacks the nutrition provided by a well-rounded diet, exacerbating the malnourished and weakened state that leaves honeybees more prone to disease.
As reported in the journal Bee Culture, a decline in plant diversity could very well be causing a decline in bee populations. Honeybees that pollinate on a wider variety of plants have a more robust immune system than bees which pollinate on monocrops, even when the monocrops had higher protein content.
Result - 'industrial bees' are routinely treated with antibiotics to combat bacterial infections, to the extent that many bees carry antibiotic resistant bacteria in their guts.
The cornbee, the soybee, the sugarybee
As if that weren't all enough, the honeybees' two sources of food, nectar (which they transform into honey for storage purposes, and which provides them with minerals, vitamins and enzymes) and pollen (which is their excellent source of protein and other nutrients), are just as much a victim of the monoculture mindset.
Because honey and pollen can command a pretty penny on the market, many beekeepers - particularly the larger ones - actually remove all the honeybees' stores of honey and pollen.
Since this leaves the bees with nothing to survive on over the winter, their pollen is then replaced with soy patties, while their honey is swapped for a sugar syrup if not high-fructose corn syrup.
Having had their wholesome and nutrient-rich honey (albeit monoculture-sourced) and pollen supplemented or even taken away from them, the modern honeybee is often forced to live off a diet that not only puts stress on their digestive systems and compromises their immune systems, but whose equivalent for us humans would be called junk food.
On top of all that, not only then must honeybees cope and live amongst the insecticides necessary for monoculture 'farms' and golf courses and suburban lawns and such, but because of their poor health, strips of insecticides are also commonly placed inside hives to kill off Varroa mites and other plagues, which honeybees are now too unhealthy to ward off.
In case you need me to spell it out, insecticides kill insects, and yes, honeybees are in fact insects themselves.
Techno-fixes are doomed to fail
So while there is no doubt that CCD has created the awareness that 'like, gee whiz, bees are dying', it would certainly be fair to ponder whether it has done all that much to inform us of the greater problem honeybees - and wild pollinators - must attempt to live amongst.
But truth be told, it largely hasn't, and what has instead resulted is an audience that has deferred to a phalanx of 'experts', who in true superhero style are expected to save the day with an array of techno fixes that will vanquish CCD to the dustbin of history.
But in reality, CCD is actually a symptom of a much greater problem, the problem of industrial agriculture. As author Rowan Jacobsen put it in his excellent book Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honeybee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis,
"Until local agriculture replaces global agriculture, there will always be another parasite, another virus, another mysterious collapse."
Allan Stromfeldt Christensen is an ex-film maker, now author, currently finishing off his first book 'From Filmers to Farmers: From Couch Potatoes to Potato Cultivators', which will be followed by the starting of the seed saving, fruit fermenting, booze brewing, billy goat browsing, experimental, demonstration, and educational farm: The Centre for Recovering Filmmakers. His writing appears on his website From Filmers to Farmers.
Part 2, forthcoming: But changes are in the air. Just like soon-to-be US president Herbert Hoover's 1928 election campaign promised "a chicken in every pot", a new invention has arrived that allows for what is essentially a beehive in every backyard. Could this help turn things around for the bees, or is it possibly more like the nail in the beekeeping coffin?
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