How to save the world's bees before it's too late

The U.S. is failling to protect one of our most valuable resources, says biologist Dave Goulson

Published May 17, 2014 6:00PM (EDT)

    (<a href=''>dtimiraos</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(dtimiraos via iStock)

The European Commission knows how important bees are: In 2011, it passed a two-year moratorium on a class of pesticides thought to be facilitating the decline of global bee populations. The chemicals, scientific studies suggested, could be contributing to colony collapse disorder, or CCD, the acronym that's come to define the frightening and mysterious disappearance, seemingly overnight, of entire hives. Over the past six years, the U.S. has lost about $2 billion in such hives and, as a result, $30 billion in crops, to CCD.

The controversial move, of course, isn't enough to save the bees, but it's a start. The U.S., despite acknowledging a “complex set of stressors and pathogens,” including agrochemicals, as potential culprits in the die-offs, has yet do anything. In March 2013, a group of beekeepers and environmental groups sued the EPA for its failure to protect the insects, and, by extension, our food supply. The agency, however, said it won't complete its review of the pesticides until 2018.

But the problem isn't limited to pesticides, says Dave Goulson, and it's not just honeybees that are feeling the stress. There are more than 20,000 species of bees in the world, and habitat loss and disease, in addition to pesticides, are threatening them all -- not to mention the other insects that are likely being affected, or the larger species that rely on those species for food.

A professor of biology at the University of Sussex and founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Goulson is the author of more than 200 scientific studies on bees and other insects and, most recently, of "A Sting in the Tale," which chronicles his lifelong fascination with bumblebees and the quest to forestall their decline. "I think it’s clear that the world my children grow up in is going to be a poorer place than what we have today," he told Salon. However, he's careful to add, we still have a chance to makes things, if not all better, then at least a lot less worse than they could have been. And he has a lot of suggestions for how that might be done. A condensed and lightly edited version of our conversation follows:

You've been studying the decline of bees for about 20 years now. Are the die-offs that we’re hearing about right now a recent phenomenon, or are they part of a larger pattern of decline?

So the die-offs we’ve been hearing about recently mostly relate to honeybees, which are the managed bees that we keep in boxes and get honey from. A lot of people think that’s the only species of bee, and of course it isn’t. There really 20-odd thousand species of bee in the world. Almost all the others are wild bees that nobody looks after; they just look after themselves. They’re all important, but we actually don’t know what’s happening to most of them.

Basically, though, the causes of these die-offs and generally of bee declines are broadly the same for all types of bees, as far as we know. And there are three main ones for which there are good evidence. You’ll read all sorts of nonsense about other things. People will tell you that mobile phones are the cause of bee decline; or genetically modified crops is a popular one -- it’s slightly more plausible, but not much more than mobiles phones.

Firstly, is habitat loss. Farming has really radically changed in the last hundred years. In Britain we used to have about 50 million acres of flowery hay meadows, and nearly 98 percent of it was destroyed in the 20th century, when we intensified farming to try and increase food production. It was really kicked up with the second World War: Subsidies were introduced to pay farmers to rip out the hedges and to essentially destroy all this natural habitat and turn it into a crop monoculture. That happens or has gone on everywhere: These days much of North America has these massive fields because of the availability of pesticides, and herbicides in particular, which means you can grow a crop without any weeds at all. I would question whether it’s sustainable, but at least in the short term it produced heaps of food. But it also means there are a lot less flowers. That’s bad if you’re bee because all you eat is pollen, nectar and flowers. That’s probably still the biggest thing that's affecting all bees.

Reason number two is disease. We accidentally redistributed bee diseases around the world. Honeybees aren’t native to the Americas at all; they come from Africa. Sadly, when people move bees around they accidentally move their diseases and parasites with them if they’re infected. And these are shared across bee species, so the diseases that affect honeybees will also spread to bumblebees and vice versa.

Number three is pesticides, which is a whole story in itself, but  some of the insecticides we use are really toxic to bees, and to wildlife generally, and that certainly contributed to the problem. So with those three things together it’s going to be bad.

Just to clarify, what’s the main difference between honeybees, which we usually hear more about, and other species? Comparatively, how important are they for food, agriculture, pollination, that sort of thing? 

If you ask a child to draw a bee, they’ll draw something big and fat with yellow and black stripes. That’s a bumblebee. Honeybees are much smaller: they’re not very furry, they’re very slender, pale brown creatures and they’re what lives in honeybee hives. And then there are all these other species of bee, which are mostly small and quite inconspicuous.

In terms of crop pollination, they're all important to some extent: Different crops tend to be better pollinated by one or the other. It has to do with the shape and size of the bee and the length of its tongue. Tomatoes are almost always pollinated by bumblebees, along with things like blueberries and raspberries, strawberries, beans and lots of other vegetables. Honeybees do a whole bunch of other things; almonds are almost always pollinated by honeybees. And many are pollinated by several different species of bee. But the long and short of it is that they’re all important. It would probably be wiser to make sure that we look at a range of bees, because one of the dangers of the modern world is that some crops very heavily rely just on honeybees. When you use lots of pesticides then you get rid of the native and wild bees, and then your only option is to buy honeybees.

Almonds are a great example of this. They grow them very intensely and something like 1.5 million honeybee hives are transported to Northern California. Most of the honeybees in North America go to pollinate the almonds in one small area of California every spring. And if anything happens to that supply of honeybee hives then the almond growers are screwed, because they’ve got nothing else to fall back on. And that’s pretty worrying. It would be a much healthier situation if they encouraged and supported wild bees as well as honeybees so they’ve got a backup. As it is, it’s very risky.

The European Union has been a lot more progressive than the U.S. on banning pesticides that may be harming bees. Can you talk a little bit about how the E.U. managed to pass its rule and whether it’s being seen as having any effect?

Yeah, so in the European Union we recently banned, for two years, three particular types of neonicotinoids, a type of insecticide that’s chemically related to nicotine. It's a nerve toxin that affects the brain of the bee and any other insect. It’s really toxic to insects, much more than almost anything else we’ve invented before. To illustrate that, a fifth of a teaspoon is enough to kill 250 million bees. In the U.K., which is a pretty small area, we have to buy 80 tons of these chemicals every year -- the U.S. figure is much, much higher. So we’re putting tons and tons of stuff into the land which is persistent, it’s systemic, it gets into plants, it gets into pollen and nectar.

Most scientists that work in this area are deeply concerned that this is basically harming our bees. Not necessarily by directly killing them, but there’s really good evidence that the doses they get are enough to mess with their behavior. As I said, these are nerve toxins; they affect the brain of the bee. The bee becomes less able to navigate and it can’t learn or associate; it’s kind of confused, it’s intoxicated. And bees need to be able to navigate; it’s one of the key things that they’re really good at. It’s essential for what they do because that’s how they find flowers and get to or from their nest. So with a honeybee or bumblebee, the workers go out and forage all day long and they can fly miles to find patches of flowers and bring food back. But if they’ve been given a dose of the nerve toxin, they can’t navigate, and they get lost, and that’s going to cut off the food supply to the nest.

So there’s really good reason to believe these things are harming our bees. And as a result, thankfully, we decided to go ahead with this moratorium. But it hasn’t really come into effect yet. The moratorium came in the effect in December 2013, so five months ago, but all our autumn crops, which is when most of our crops are sown, were treated before the moratorium. So if you drive around Britain today, you’ll see lots of canola fields in full flower. They're all treated. So even with the moratorium now in effect we won’t see any benefits, at the very earliest, until next year. To be honest, it will probably take longer than that.

A two-year moratorium doesn’t seem long enough to measure whether this is having any real impact. How long would we realistically need?

Well, probably quite a few years, and I should emphasize that even with this moratorium in place, bees still have plenty of other problems, so populations are not going to go through the ceiling. But in any case these chemicals are really persistent; we know that they last in soil for five to 10 years, essentially. And they’ll last in plants for years. So it will take time for these things to slowly disappear from the environment, and nothing is going to happen quickly. I would hope that in three or four years, if the ban is renewed, we will start to see at least a small improvement -- not just in bees but hopefully in other wildlife, because I think there’s pretty good reason to believe that these chemicals have had negative effects on all insects: things like ladybirds, butterflies and all kinds of beneficial insects that we’d like to see, and probably the things that eat them, like birds, as well.

So yeah, it will take a long time to benefit. But the sooner you start, the better. I don’t want to be rude about it to you guys, but it’s quite depressing that the U.S. is really slow on this. There’s nothing much happening in North America at all and I think it’s about time you guys caught up.

So can it be argued that if bees are experiencing these negative effects from pesticides, that it’s likely to move up the food chain, and that large animals or people might be affected also?

It’s very likely that a number of animals are being affected through lack of food. I’ve been some as yet unpublished studies and there’s various indirect evidence that’s pretty convincing, that seems to suggest that bird populations, particularly insect-eating birds, have been hit. Probably not because of direct poisoning, but simply because all of their food has been wiped out.

It’s possible that there are direct toxic effects on the food chain as well. These particular pesticides are less toxic to us than they are to insects, but they’re still toxic. And all the safety testing is based on really short-term tests. Generally speaking, it’s just over 48 hours or barely a week at the longest, and if you test rat or whatever it might be is still alive at the end, then you assume that all is well. But actually what happens in the real world is that animals and humans are exposed continually throughout their lives. More or less everything you eat contains a whole range of chemicals.

Getting back to the bees, some groups in the U.S. have pressured the EPA to enact a similar ban to the U.K.'s, but so far the EPA says it’s not going to even look into it for a number of years. Are there other things we can be doing to help preserve bees in the meantime?

A lot of conservation stories are very depressing because you can’t get involved very easily. You can’t get involved to save polar bears or tigers or whatever, but you can help to save bees just in your back garden. It’s easy to find resources that list bee-friendly flowers: the Xerces Society has lists for North America, and the Bumblebee Conservation Trust has a list for the U.K. So anyone can quickly go to their local garden center and find some big, friendly plants. And as soon as those things flower, you’ll see bees -- even in the middle of a big city, bees will hunt you out and visit your flowers if you grow them. If you can provide them with some clean, healthy food that really helps, because that’s one of the big things they're missing at the moment. And maybe they can cope with diseases and poisoning if they’ve got access to some nice, healthy food every now and again. If you haven’t got a garden maybe there are local places where you work, or community parks and gardens that are owned by the city -- putting in bee-friendly plants will make a real difference.

How hopeful are you that we'll be able to turn the overall decline around?

The decline will continue for some time. Not just of bees, but of wildlife. The picture at present is quite depressing: We’re basically in the midst of what's called a mass extinction event. Probably several dozen species go extinct every day, and nothing is going to stop that quickly. But if we start changing, if we start stopping messing up the planet, at least we can make it less bad than it might be otherwise.

It’s really hard to know. I mean, on a bad day I can get quite depressed about all this, and, to be honest, I think it’s clear that the world my children grow up in is going to be a poorer place than what we have today. It’s inevitable because this process is underway right now. We’ve already destroyed huge proportions of the natural ecosystems of the world and we destroy more every day. We grow food in an extremely environmentally unfriendly way and probably in an unsustainable way. We’re seeing massive soil erosion around the world, which inevitably will lead to crop yield dropping. So one might get pretty depressed and think the future is quite bleak -- I don’t know. I hope it’s not.

All we can do is do our best right now. And anything we do will make it better than it might have been. Maybe this is a bit cheesy, but there’s an old proverb that goes, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. And the second-best time to plant a tree is today.” Well, you know, if everyone starts doing something, then it’s certainly going to help. So you have to try and be positive, don’t you? If people give up and think there is no point, it’s all too late, then we’re definitely screwed. Some things are pretty tough. Some types of bee are much tougher than others, so we’re going to lose some -- we've already lost some -- but unless we’re really stupid we won’t lose all of them.

By Lindsay Abrams

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