Guest Post: To Bee Or Not To Be?

Painting by Anthony Freda:

Bees – upon which the entire human food chain rests – are suffering a sharp decline.

As the Guardian pointed out Monday:

The abundance of four common species of bumblebee in the US has dropped by 96% in just the past few decades, according to the most comprehensive national census of the insects [a three-year study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences].

Sydney Cameron, an entomologist at the University of Illinois, led a team on a three-year study of the changing distribution, genetic diversity and pathogens in eight species of bumblebees in the US.

By comparing her results with those in museum records of bee populations, she showed that the relative abundance of four of the sampled species (Bombus occidentalis, B. pensylvanicus, B. affinis and B. terricola) had declined by up to 96% and that their geographic ranges had contracted by 23% to 87%, some within just the past two decades.

Cameron’s findings reflect similar studies across the world. According to the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in the UK, three of the 25 British species of bumblebee are already extinct and half of the remainder have shown serious declines, often up to 70%, since around the 1970s. Last year, scientists inaugurated a £10m programme, called the Insect Pollinators Initiative, to look at the reasons behind the devastation in the insect population.

As the Guardian notes, bees are essential for human food production:

Bumblebees are important pollinators of wild plants and agricultural crops around the world including tomatoes and berries thanks to their large body size, long tongues, and high-frequency buzzing, which helps release pollen from flowers.

Bees in general pollinate some 90% of the world’s commercial plants, including most fruits, vegetables and nuts. Coffee, soya beans and cotton are all dependent on pollination by bees to increase yields. It is the start of a food chain that also sustains wild birds and animals.


Insects such as bees, moths and hoverflies pollinate around a third of the crops grown worldwide. If all of the UK’s insect pollinators were wiped out, the drop in crop production would cost the UK economy up to £440m a year, equivalent to around 13% of the UK’s income from farming.

The collapse in the global bee population is a major threat to crops. It is estimated that a third of everything we eat depends upon pollination by bees, which means they contribute some £26bn to the global economy.


“Pollinator decline has become a worldwide issue, raising increasing concerns over impacts on global food production, stability of pollination services, and disruption of plant-pollinator networks,” wrote Cameron. “

The Guardian notes that bees are not the only pollinators which are declining:

But the insects, along with other crucial pollinators such as moths and hoverflies, have been in serious decline around the world since the last few decades of the 20th century. It is unclear why, but scientists think it is from a combination of new diseases, changing habitats around cities, and increasing use of pesticides.

The Guardian points to some of the potential causes of bee decline:

Parasites such as the bloodsucking varroa mite and viral and bacterial infections, pesticides and poor nutrition stemming from intensive farming methods.

As Fast Company pointed out last month:

A leaked EPA document reveals that the agency allowed the widespread use of a bee-toxic pesticide, despite warnings from EPA scientists.

The document, which was leaked to a Colorado beekeeper, shows that the EPA has ignored warnings about the use of clothianidin, a pesticide produced by Bayer that mainly is used to pre-treat corn seeds. The pesticide scooped up $262 million in sales in 2009 by farmers, who also use the substance on canola, soy, sugar beets, sunflowers, and wheat, according to Grist.

The leaked document (PDF) was put out in response to Bayer’s request to approve use of the pesticide on cotton and mustard. The document invalidates a prior Bayer study that justified the registration of clothianidin on the basis of its safety to honeybees:

Clothianidin’s major risk concern is to nontarget insects (that is, honey bees). Clothianidin is a neonicotinoid insecticide that is both persistent and systemic. Acute toxicity studies to honey bees show that clothianidin is highly toxic on both a contact and an oral basis. Although EFED does not conduct RQ based risk assessments on non-target insects, information from standard tests and field studies, as well as incident reports involving other neonicotinoids insecticides (e.g., imidacloprid) suggest the potential for long-term toxic risk to honey bees and other beneficial insects.

The EPA is still allowing the use of Clothianidin to this day. And see this.

And as I’ve previously pointed out:

To recap: bees are fed junk food totally different from what bees naturally eat with very little nutritional content, taken out of their normal natural environment and shoved into trucks, and then driven all over the nation.

The poor nutrition, exposure to numerous pesticides (and genetically modified foods), and stressful condition of being constantly trucked all over the country are hurting the bees. Why do beekeepers do it? Because high-fructose corn syrup and soy protein are cheap junk, and because the widespread use of pesticides coupled with trucking bees around the country is the low-cost industrial farming business model.

The bottom line is that raising and using bees to pollinate crops in a way that won’t kill so many bees will be more expensive … thus driving up food prices.

There is also evidence that genetically modified crops might be killing bees … or at least weakening them so that they are more susceptible to disease. See this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this and this.

And as Agence France-Presse notes, inbreeding may be weakening the bees.

(On a side note, no one has yet asked whether silver iodide or other compounds used in weather modification affect bees. They may not, but someone should test the bees for such compounds and their metabolites so that we can rule out them out as a cause of colony collapse.)

Albert Einstein reportedly said:

If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination … no more men!

That might have been a slight exaggeration, but Einstein was right: If we kill off the bees, we will be in big trouble.

There are also reports of birds and fish mysteriously dying world-wide. While these may or may not be connected with the collapse of bee populations, it is a sign that all is not right with the world.

As I wrote two years ago:

First the frogs started disappearing.

Then the bees started disappearing.

Now, its birds. According to CBC, tens of millions of birds are disappearing across North America.

According to the Seattle Times:

Pelicans suffering from a mysterious malady are crashing into cars and boats, wandering along roadways and turning up dead by the hundreds across the West Coast, from southern Oregon to Baja California, Mexico, bird-rescue workers say.

Frogs and bees are so different from people that they are easier to ignore. But birds are larger, more complicated, warm-blooded animals, and thus closer to us biologically.

People will be in real trouble unless we figure out why the amphibians, bees and birds are dying.

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About George Washington

George Washington is the head writer at Washington’s Blog. A busy professional and former adjunct professor, George’s insatiable curiousity causes him to write on a wide variety of topics, including economics, finance, the environment and politics. For further details, ask Keith Alexander…


  1. William Wilson

    When political appointees/lawyers are running the EPA, FDA, CDC, as well as other US government agencies, environmental degradation his frequently accelerated. The ineptness of the EPA officials as regards ignoring of scientific advice from staff and/or extramural sources is reminiscent of the (not so) funny business’ exhibited especially frequently by Republican leaders of a variety of government agencies following the disasters of 9/11/2001 and of hurricane Katrina. Many of the Bush appointees were subsequently converted to permanent appointees; B Obama seems to have done little to rectify those actions.

  2. Thor

    “Because high-fructose corn syrup and soy protein are cheap junk, and because the widespread use of pesticides coupled with trucking bees around the country is the low-cost industrial farming business model.”

    Corn and soy are only cheap because their production is heavily subsidized with tax money. Stop the tax money injections and they will no longer be so cheap for bee keepers to purchase.

    1. rjs

      …something not often mentioned when talking about this is the lack of good bee pasture; bees need a fairly continuous food supply, from the first thaw till the time they hibernate…before herbicides, they could depend on weeds growing in with the crop plants…honeybees may be trucked in when a crop is in bloom, then trucked to another crop later, so theyll have a continuous food supply…and they store quite a bit of honey for periods of dearth…but without weeds, native pollinators with little stores like bumblebees wont survive in one crop landscapes…

  3. YankeeFrank

    Obama is such a fraud — I recall numerous times during the campaign when he promised to clean up government and restore agencies like EPA back to their proper role in regulating corporate destruction of the environment. In my lifetime I’ve seen politicians lie but Obama is the worst liar I have ever seen. He has no integrity and as Yves often points out prefers PR to reality in pretty much everything. Clinton was a disappointment but the stakes are so much higher now and Obama is slicker than slick Willie ever was, even if his style appears more sober. His failure is a tragedy of immense proportion. He has simultaneously discredited liberal principles at the same time as he has promoted the authoritarian fascist state. Heckuva job Obambi. Sorry for the somewhat off topic rant but I am so sick of this crap.

    1. John

      Remember when lying candidate Obama promised to keep the moratorium on off-shore drilling?

      Then just weeks before the Gulf Oil disaster real corporate Obama said he was lifting the moratorium on off-shore drilling and it was a green light for drill, baby, drill?

  4. md

    There is a bee problem, but it is not a threat to the world food supply. In this respect, this post and the quoted Guardian article are completely off base. Most crops do not require bees or other pollinators. Bee’s may be able to collect pollen from 90% of the worlds crops if available, but that does not mean bee pollination is significant. Bee pollinators are commercially important for some fruits and specialty crops.

    1. Zachary

      I don’t know enough about the subject to make an intelligent comment one way or the other, but I did raise my eyebrows at the Guardian claim regarding soybeans. So far as I can determine, soybeans are almost totally self-pollinated. Finding such a glaring fault makes a person wonder about the quality of the rest of the article.


      Some Indian researchers claim cell phones are causing problems for bees.

      “In a study at Panjab University in Chandigarh, northern India, researchers fitted cell phones to a hive and powered them up for two fifteen-minute periods each day.

      After three months, they found the bees stopped producing honey, egg production by the queen bee halved, and the size of the hive dramatically reduced.”

      This was a very simple procedure, and one even amateur beekeepers could easily replicate.

  5. Name required

    It isn’t true that the ‘entire’ human food chain depends on Bees. No fish nor shellfish do while meat cattle and sheep (can) rely on grasses which are fertilised by wind-born pollen as are grains for pig and human consumption. Bee pollination is largely relevant to fruits and a world without fruit is survivable, tho’ it would be a drabber, sadder place without fruit and, of course, wine.

    The human food-chain is in fact more dependent upon the earthworm than it is upon the bee.

  6. fercryinoutloud

    Nah, they’ve just headed back to their original home planet.

    Keep an eye peeled for Daleks…


  7. rd

    I strongly recommend Douglas Tallamy’s “Bringing Nature Home” to understand the importance of bio-diverse native plants in the lanscape for maintaining robust insect populations, including bees. It is possible for individuals to have significant influence by what they plant in their own gardens.

  8. Toby

    Good to see a post referencing the natural world, from where wealth ultimately springs. The bullshit idea that The Invisible Hand takes care of everything just so long as we behave as greedily and selfishly as we can … oh, and rationally too, must be taken outside and whacked. We humans are legion and pay insufficient attention to how terribly destructive our rabid pursuit of GDP growth is. Unless we reorient our priorities and place real wealth above representations of it (money) we are going to wipe out most life on earth. It really is that simple.

  9. anne

    I planted my veggie garden out while there is a locust plague … the only thing they seem to eat is Pak Choy! But I have done a permaculture garden – all mixed up and it is thriving! No pesticides and just bit of fertiliser (and no monsanto rubbish). I have bees, ants, wasps and birds fertilising it – maybe more farmers should mix their crop up and stop doing a monoculture – gives variety .. oh and don’t ship bees around the country. I plant extra for the bugs – but they seem to be eaten by the ladybirds and birds – not bloody rocket science.

  10. Mark Alexander

    Bats are also on their way to becoming extinct in the U.S., due to a mysterious ailment called White Nose Syndrome. This is another disaster for humans, since bats are the main consumers of mosquitoes.

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