Opinion: Save the Bees

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A bumblebee pollinates a prairie clover. NPS Photo by Erin Anfinson.

For the last time, save the damn bees. The role that bees play in our ecosystem is a particularly vital one. They have dutifully fulfilled this role for over 50 million years – buzzing, pollinating and prospering. They bless us with beautiful hues of color, sprucing up this earth despite humans continually degrading it. Honestly, they might not even realize the earth is dying around them, but they do realize when they themselves are dying.

The use of various pesticides by farmers is having an extremely negative effect on the population of bees. Decades-long analysis of bee populations shows a steady decline. If we don’t recognize the importance of bees, we may be dooming ourselves to a duller world – but should that world even exist at all?

The way that humans generally think about bees seems to be irrational. One buzzes toward you and you swat, you duck and you run. This is the fight-or-flight response which bees typically trigger in humans. The interesting part comes when you take a step back and look at why we act the way that we do.

A bee – which is probably less than one-tenth of the size of a normal human hand – encourages us to cower in fear from the threat of a singular sting. In the “war” between humans and bees, humans are winning by a tremendous margin, yet the bees still make us turn tail.

This fear of bees is irrational. The good that bees do for our earth, which is nearing deeper and deeper levels of peril, is utterly invaluable.

Filmmaker Louis Schwartzberg was motivated to create a nature documentary, “Wings of Life,” on bees when he realized how important these small creatures were.

We depend on pollinators to create the necessary conditions to grow over a third of the fruits and vegetable humans consume. It is also important to recognize bees do their job not solely for the benefit of humans but also to sustain themselves.

“Bees are motivated to pollinate because of risk and reward. They want to survive, they want to reproduce. And ultimately, just like anything, nothing lasts forever and everything in the universe wears out,” Schwartzberg notes.

The ability for bees to reproduce is precisely what is becoming a problem. In the post World War II United States, farmers began the practice of creating crop monocultures. A monoculture is defined as a single crop repeatedly grown on the same land. These monocultures set up significant barriers for bee populations.

Dr. Marla Spivak, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota, gave a TED Talk detailing why we should be more concerned with how we think about bees in our society, specifically our farming communities.

“Farms which used to sustain bees are now agricultural food deserts dominated by 1 or 2 plant species like corn or soybeans. Since World War II we have been systematically eliminating many of the flowering plants that bees need for their survival,” Spivak said.

Spivak continued by discussing how the use of pesticides on these farms only contributes to the decline of bees.

“After World War II we started using pesticides on a large scale and this became necessary because of the monocultures which create a feast for crop pests,” Spivak said.

Despite these changes in farming practices that have undoubtedly harmed bee populations, we still have seen a 300 percent increase in crops which require pollination, yet we are killing off those populations. What’s worse is how these pesticides affect bees.

Once they pollinate a flower containing the pesticide, they are hit with a lethal dose of neonicotinoids – the most common pesticide used – which effectively makes the bees woozy and increasingly disassociated until eventually they stop flying, roll over and die.

The employment of pesticides essentially acts as farmers committing mass genocide on a vital member of the ecology which built this world, getting them high and knocking them dead.

Neonicotinoids have been criticized for how they impact bees, but because of the fact that they typically do not kill entire colonies nearly at the rate that they kill individual bees, it’s hard to make a substantive case proving the widespread danger to bees. That doesn’t necessarily have to be the case to recognize the harms of pesticides.

“New studies say the environmental levels of neonicotinoids surrounding farms do not obliterate bee colonies outright, but instead kill them over extended periods of time. The pesticides also threaten bee queens in particular — which means colonies have lower reproductive rates,” reports PBS.

The long-term timeframe on the impacts of bees is corroborated by the decades-long trend of declining bee populations.

Greenpeace underscored the severity of this situation.

“Put in simple terms, bees and other pollinators – both natural and managed – seem to be declining globally, but particularly in North America and Europe. Lack of robust regional or international programs designed to monitor the current status and trends of pollinators means there is considerable uncertainty in the scale and extent of this decline,” stated Greenpeace.

Not only can we not know exactly how bad the problem is, but we do know that the harm will be inflicted over long periods of time. What this indicates is that the longer we advance an apathetic position in concern with bees, the more the threat is amplified.

The beauty of the earth is a result of buzzing, pollinating and bees undisrupted and careful tending to the earth. For probably as long as the collective human memory can reach back, bees have been there doing their job and using beauty to make the earth something special.

Schwartzberg truly believed in the virtue of beauty and urges all of us to as well.

“Beauty and seduction, I believe, is nature’s tool for survival, because we will protect what we fall in love with. Their relationship is a love story that feeds the Earth. It reminds us that we are a part of nature, and we’re not separate from it,” Schwartzberg said.

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