Save the Honeybee, Sterilize the Earth
By Josh Dzieza
A decade ago, people started panicking about the collapse of the honeybee population and the crash of our food supply. But today there are more honeybees than there were then. We have engineered our way to a frenzied and precarious new normal.
For the past seven years, as has been widely reported, honeybees have been dying at an alarming rate. Yet today there are slightly more hives in the [USA] than before the die-offs began. That’s because beekeeping [operations] 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. […]
For the vast majority of their history, beekeepers moved their bees in order to make more honey, not to pollinate crops. In fact, pollination itself is a phenomenon few farmers understood until relatively recently. As late as the 1880s, some farmers banished beekeepers from the their farms, believing that bees robbed pollen and killed fruit. It’s a forgivable misunderstanding. The farmers didn’t realize that the bees had evolved to be messy eaters, carrying pollen grains on their fur. And 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. In 1918, the naturalist John Harvey Lovell concluded that “the fruit-culture of the future must be largely dependent on the domestic bee, the only agency in crossing which can be controlled by man.”
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. The economic shift from honey to pollination was a long time coming, but two things finally tipped the balance…
Article source: PSMag
Images: Illustration by Tom Cocotos; Photos by Max Whittaker/Prime
h/t to plantyhamchuk