The ecologist Ruth DeFries calls the last half-century of agricultural industrialization “the Big Ratchet.” It is the latest and most extreme example of a cycle of technological innovation that has allowed humanity to thrive in the face of constant ecological crises. For thousands of years people have been coming up with new ways to wring more food from nature, then running up against some ecological barrier—often a side effect of the original innovation—and engineering a way around it. Humans invented agriculture, which depleted the soil, which they replenished with animal and human manure, which allowed towns to grow, which caused septic disease, so sewers were invented, which diverted night soil from the fields, so fertilizer was invented, which made monocultures possible, which allowed pests to run rampant, so insecticides were invented; and so it went, accelerating exponentially as the population grew from a billion-and-a-half people to seven billion in the last century, more and more of them living in cities, where they’re fed by fewer people harnessing technology to manage ever larger crops. DeFries calls each innovation a ratchet, and the inevitable obstacle a hatchet. Technology ratchets up the population. Then the hatchet falls, and a new ratchet must be invented.
Migratory pollination has been a ratchet working in the background during this period of explosive growth. Monocultures distorted the natural balance of pollination, so people put honeybees on trucks, marshaling a superabundance of insects to pollinate the new superabundance of fruits, nuts, and vegetables. …
(From Save the honeybee, sterilize the earth; unless otherwise noted, all quoted text is from this article.)
It is widely known that there have been severe problems with honeybees in recent years – colony collapse disorder, big die-offs, etc. – which seem to be caused by use of pesticides. Or mites. Or all of the above. And, given how important honeybees are for pollination of many of our food crops, keeping them from even worse population crashes is very important to us.
So everyone’s concerned about the honeybee population, and rightly so, and talking about ways to keep them safe, and this is a good thing. But the situation is more complicated, and even uglier than the simple problem of “pesticides killing our winged farming assistants.”
As the above-quoted article outlines, as agriculture has gotten bigger and bigger (that is, taking up massive land area, and grown in monocultures), native pollinator populations have gotten smaller and smaller, requiring more and more use of honeybees as pollinators. They are now being treated very much like any other industrial-agriculture livestock, a drastic change from our much older, longer relationship with honeybees as honey producers first and foremost, and at small scales.
. . .with swarms of native bumblebees, orchard bees, and feral honeybees always around, fruit happened with beekeepers or without. In a natural ecosystem, or even a small multi-crop farm, there were always enough plants in bloom at any given time to sustain a resident population of pollinators.
But when farmers began planting larger plots with one crop, the natural balance of pollination was distorted. A monoculture, as it’s called, can’t sustain all the wild insects it needs to pollinate it, because there’s nothing for the insects to eat when the main crop isn’t in bloom. Monoculture farmers noticed that their trees would flower abundantly yet produce hardly any fruit, which led to the discovery that many fruit trees are self-sterile: To produce, they need to be planted in mixed varieties, and they need insects to ferry pollen from one variety to another.
Honeybees provided a convenient solution. Whereas many bees native to North America are solitary, fly only a few hundred feet to forage, and have evolved to pollinate a single plant species, honeybees are opportunistic eaters, fly more than two miles, and live in resilient, easily transported hives. By the early 20th century, farmers were signing occasional contracts with local beekeepers to pollinate orchards.
The dramatic transformation of our relationship with the honeybee, however, began in the years following World War II, as the mechanization of agriculture drastically increased the size of the nation’s farms and the use of pesticides exploded. This marked the decline of many remaining wild pollinators, and the beginning of the honeybee’s shift from a semi-domesticated producer of honey to a living tool integral to industrial agriculture. In the past several decades migratory pollination has only become a bigger portion of the beekeeping industry, surpassing revenues from honey sales sometime around 2007.
One of the most important places where honeybees are required are the extremely problematic almond orchards in California. From California Goes Nuts:
…almonds, along with California-grown pistachios and walnuts, are becoming so lucrative that big investment funds, eager to get in on the boom, are snapping up land and dropping in trees.
There’s just one problem: Almond orchards require about a third more water per acre than grape vineyards. In fact, they’re one of California’s thirstiest crops. It takes a gallon of water to produce a single almond—more than three times the amount required for a grape and two and a half times as much for a strawberry. There’s more water embedded in just four almonds than there is in a full head of lettuce. But unlike row crops, which farmers can choose not to plant during dry spells, almond trees must be watered no matter what.
In the midst of the worst drought in California’s history, you might expect almonds’ extreme thirst to be a deal breaker. But it’s not. In fact, the drought has had hardly any impact at all on the almond boom…
You can’t have almonds without pollination; there aren’t enough local pollinators, so beekeepers travel to the orchards for pollination season to keep the almonds going.
Today, to pollinate California’s almond crop alone requires the services of up to three-quarters of all the managed honeybees in the United States. And they don’t get to the valley on their own; the bees are trucked in by the billion from as far away as Florida each January, just before the trees begin to bloom. (from “California Goes Nuts”)
So, on top of the immense amount of water required, in an arid region (which they are now pumping out of the groundwater, with no restrictions, because California law allows it), to keep the almond orchards alive, add those climate-impacting costs of transporting bees, along with economic pressure for beekeepers to supply the orchards, because honey is not as lucrative – and because so many areas are simply unhealthy for bees to live in any more, due to pesticide exposure. (Bonus additional article on California’s almonds-and-drought problem)
Zac [Browning] would prefer to be home in North Dakota, dispersing his hives across the ranches and plains there and waiting as they fill with honey—beekeeping like his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather practiced. But years of declining honey yields have made it impossible to run a business on honey alone. These days, crop pollination pays the bills, and almonds are by far the most lucrative crop. 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…
…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.
Part of the problem with keeping bees in a monoculture situation is that they are only getting pollen – their food – from one source, which is not good for their health. That, combined with exposure to pesticides, weakens hives. Lack of good alternatives to actual diverse pollen sources is leading to people trying to come up with “artificial” pollen to feed bees.
Later I ask Mussen what beekeeping with a pollen substitute would look like. He describes a sort of bee feedlot, a giant space where bees can fly around and defecate and live off ersatz pollen, getting sent out on pollination jobs when needed. As more land is given over to agriculture and development, Mussen adds, bees are rapidly running out of real flowers to feed from. “The carrying capacity is shriveling up in the U.S.,” he says, referring to the maximum population an ecosystem can sustain. By way of example he points to the expansion of crops genetically engineered to resist the herbicide glyphosate, which kills weeds that bees previously would have fed on. “We’re sterilizing the Earth,” he says.
Over a million acres of grassland were converted to crops in five Midwestern states from 2006 to 2011, according to a study by South Dakota State University, a rate of habitat destruction the authors liken to tropical forest logging in Brazil and Indonesia during the late 20th century. Across the region more than 99 percent of what was originally prairie has been converted, mostly to corn and soy for animal feed, ethanol, and sweetener. Corn is pollinated by the wind; the crop doesn’t provide many nutrients for bees, but before the adoption of glyphosate-resistant crops, there were at least weeds and wildflowers in the margins of the fields. Now the entire Midwest, several beekeepers told me, has become a “corn desert.”
So corn kills off pollinators not only through the use of neonicotinoids, but by replacing habitat and biodiversity with . . . the corn itself, and herbicides to protect the corn.
So far, none of the pollen substitutes have worked nearly as well as the real deal. The industry is looking into other ways to improve the health of bee hives – or rather, ways to change beekeeping, and bees, to allow the industrialized system to continue as-is, to keep the bees alive longer under industrialized circumstances. Whether that really improves bee health probably depends on how you define “health.”
… On one end of the spectrum you can imagine warehouses of Varroa-immune superbees plucked from an increasingly hostile landscape and kept alive for their agricultural utility. On the other end of the spectrum would be large-scale conservation, a return to smaller, weedier farms, and the adoption of less-harsh but more labor-intensive methods of pest control.
Most beekeepers I spoke with would prefer the latter but can see agriculture trending toward the former. That means a fundamental change in their lives. “We’re not beekeepers anymore, we’re bee doctors,” says one Florida man who pollinates crops in 14 states. “We’re paid to keep making beehives. They pay us to patch ’em up, send ’em out, patch ’em up, send ’em out.”
Many species on the planet have mutualistic relationships with each other, something that provides benefits to both parties without being as intense as symbiosis. For example, screech owls will capture reptiles called blind snakes, and bring them into their nests, but NOT to eat them. The blind snakes consume insects drawn to the food scraps left behind by the owl chicks, which keep the chicks from being hurt by the insects (or having their food eaten by the insects), and in return, as long as there are owls living there, the lizards have a food supply with no predators around. (Info from Who’s Who.)
In wild, normal ecosystems, life supports other life. In some cases, the relationship is one similar to the example above: both parties benefit from it without either primary partner eating the other, but in many, many cases, life is supported by the death of other things. All the wild diversity that exists, exists in intricate webs of life-supporting-life, in many different ways.
For thousands of years we carried bees by raft and barge, by wagon and train, across oceans and continents, so they could make us honey and wax. Now we’ll try to carry them through the Anthropocene so they can pollinate our crops. The old mutualism, where we make homes for bees so bees can make us honey, is turning into fraught co-dependence. We need bees on an industrial scale to fertilize our food, and the bees need us to keep them alive in an increasingly hostile industrial landscape.
So far, there are few signs that the ratchets in our human-made “ecosystems” (I use that term lightly here) are going to do anything but keep moving forward, propping up the interconnected webs of human-designed systems, which reduce biodiversity, create unhealthy conditions for the living things caught up in the processes, and are, ultimately, inimical to life. Wild systems support more and greater diversity, and thus more life; human-made systems reduce it. But as long as there is a lot of money to be made, relatively easily, stepping back into more appropriate mutualisms is going to be a difficult change.
“Save the honeybees” has many implications that are rarely unacknowledged – and rarely suggests the sort of saving that ought to be happening instead.