The Real Problem With Bees

In recent months, Colony Collapse Disorder has been big news: The diminishing number of honeybees is putting the U.S. food supply at risk, we’re told, because so much of our agriculture depends on pollination by the insects. Suspected causes for the recent collapse include pesticides, parasites, global warming, and cell phones, and the problem has enviros and aggies equally worried. But the real “honeybee apocalypse” is already over, argues writer Heather Smith in a recent Slate article; as she tells it, everyone is freaking out over the wrong thing:

[H]oneybees have been virtually extinct in North America for more than 10 years, their absence concealed by a rogue’s gallery of look-alikes. The stragglers have been kept alive only by the continued ministrations of the agricultural giga-industry that needs them.

Turns out about 98 percent of “wild, free-range honeybees” in this country died between 1987 and 1994, when a parasitic mite called Varroa destructor infected the species on a massive scale. The population of bees raised by keepers, meanwhile, dropped by half. And after that, the real trouble began:

Beekeepers opted to keep their colonies on life support with selective breeding, and by sprinkling them with medicine and insecticides aimed at the invading mites. This was no longer a hobby for amateurs. The only honeybees left—i.e., the ones that started disappearing in October—had become the cows of the insect world: virtually extinct in the wild, hopped up on antibiotics, and more likely to reproduce via artificial insemination than by their own recognizance.

If anything, it’s impressive that the honeybee has hung on in America for as long as it has. The commercial hives spend half the year sealed and stacked in the back of 18-wheelers, as they’re schlepped down miles of interstate to pollinate crops around the country. During this time, they get pumped up with high fructose corn syrup, which keeps the bees buzzing and lively, but it’s no pollen. And if a bee happens to get sick on the road, it can’t self-quarantine by flying away from the colony to die. (In the wild, a bee rarely dies in the hive.) Add to the above the reduced genetic diversity resulting from the die-offs in the 1990s, and you have an insect living in a very precarious situation—where a new pathogen, even a mild one, could spell honeybee doom.

Yikes—industrial agriculture’s tentacles reach even into the insect world. And in classic form, the agribusiness solution is to throw more technology at the problem (not that it really has any choice at this point): In the last decade, researchers have started “cultivating other insects for mass pollination,” including bumblebees. As Smith notes, those poor bugs are likely to go the way of the honeybee. But I wonder if there won’t emerge a market for pollination services using humanely raised, corn-syrup-free bees.

Until then, the United States is a dangerous place for vegans.