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Bees are dying off -- but there's a surprisingly simple, completely uncontroversial way to save them

The only thing stopping us from protecting pollinators is greed, Dave Goulson tells Salon


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Lindsay Abrams
May 31, 2015 6:00PM (UTC)

The world's bees are in trouble, and progress in addressing the underlying problems contributing to their demise, from the use of dangerous pesticides to the destruction of their habitat, is painfully slow.

But it still isn't too late, a hopeful, if not terribly optimistic Dave Goulson tells Salon.

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A professor of biology at the University of Sussex and the founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, Goulson knows better than anyone just how massive the challenges are, but also how capable we are of meeting them -- if we only muster the will. His work studying the bees' plight was the focus of his first book, "A Sting in the Tale" -- Salon spoke with him about it last May. His latest book, "A Buzz in the Meadow," has as its centerpiece a small part of the solution: Goulson writes of his decade-plus-long project of transforming a rundown farm in rural France into a thriving meadow, which teems with life of all sorts and has become a haven for wild bees.

Salon caught up with Goulson to gauge the current situation and for a much-needed reminder that saving the bees isn't as impossible as it may seem. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What’s been happening in the bee world since we talked a year ago? Have there been any big developments in research or policy that stand out to you?

The thing that everyone talks about is all the pesticide-related stuff that’s rumbling on and on and on. There’s a lot of politics there. Obama has just announced his bee care bill, and in Ontario they're having a big battle over proposals to withdraw neonicotinoids or reduce their use by 80 percent. Over here in Europe we’ve got this moratorium in place, but it runs out this year and no one knows what to do next, so there’s a pitched battle running at the moment between the agrichemical industry and the environmentalists and scientists all caught up in the middle of it. So that’s all been interesting and messy.

I was wondering what you thought about Obama’s new pollinator plan. I know it emphasizes bee habitat and creating these pathways for bees, which you talk about in the book as extremely important to be focusing on.

I guess I’m naturally a bit of a skeptic as to the value of big documents produced by politicians, because they often don’t seem to actually result in much real action. If they really produce, now I forget of the top of my head how many million hectares of habitat it was supposed to be, was it 5 million or something?

Yes, 5 million.

If that actually happens, and it’s good habitat for bees, that would be amazing. That really would massively help. But talk is all very well; it doesn’t help anybody or anything, so it would be nice to see whether it really works.

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I suppose I also thought it was a little bit weak on the pesticide side of things. It was just really saying, “We need to do loads more research.” Well, I do research, so you’d imagine I would be saying, “Yes! Lots more money, that’s what us scientists need.” And of course, that would be nice. But actually, I think we know enough to do something, so some more specific measures to reduce pesticide use would have been nice. But perhaps that was further than they were willing to go.

Are there any areas where you might suggest that, so far as pesticides go, more research really could be useful? Or is this just buying time? That’s what it sounded like to me.

I think it is buying time rather than biting the bullet, because we all know that we use too many pesticides and it’s not really good for the environment. But nobody really wants to tackle it, because there are such powerful vested interests and so much money is made from selling them that it’s politically a difficult one to take on. So it’s an easy option to say "Let’s do more research."

There are some areas we don’t understand very well. One of the obvious ones is that when people look at the safety of any new chemical that’s being developed, it has to be evaluated -- and it’s all done on little short-term toxicity trials. So you get your honeybee and you give it compound X. You basically then wait two days, and if it’s still alive after two days, all is well and it's deemed that that compound is not going to harm honeybees. So they look at acute toxicity in very short time periods. They never look at what happens if a bee is exposed for six months to a small amount of pesticide -- but that’s what really happens. Also what really happens is the bee isn’t just exposed to one chemical -- it’s exposed to 10 chemicals chronically throughout its life. Nobody looks at what the effects of mixtures are on bees, or for that matter on everything else, on people. We all consume pesticides chronically, more or less in everything we eat, and yet no one really knows for sure that that isn’t harmful long-term because no one has ever studied it long-term. You couldn’t really do it; there are some obvious practical difficulties.

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So as far as bees are concerned, there are some big unknowns as to just how much impact being gently, chronically exposed to a whole cocktail of chemicals throughout their lives has. We know it happens, but we don’t know what it does. But you can guess it’s probably not good for them.

Going back to habitats, I’d love it if you could take a minute and talk about the importance of restoring wild habitat and maybe a little bit about what you learned on your farm in France.

Well obviously the big reason bees have declined, and the big reason wildlife has declined globally, is loss of habitat -- and particularly for bees, loss of these flowering meadows. We used to have loads and loads of them, particularly in Europe. We had this ancient tradition of making hay and so we had hay meadows all over the place: huge, huge areas of them, and they were all full of flowers and happy bees until the 1940s, ’50s, ’60s when they all just got destroyed. It’s slightly different in North America, but you still had these vast tracts of prairies not so long ago which were originally flower-rich, open grasslands full of bees. But obviously the vast majority of those got turned into cereal fields and farmland and there are basically no flowers left, or hardly any.

The simplest way, if you want to conserve bees, the most obvious thing and the least controversial thing, everyone can agree, it would be nice to have more flowers. You don’t upset too many people when you say that. But it’s true. And also going back to these other things, the pesticides and the diseases they suffer from, they’re probably better able to cope with being poisoned or infected if they’ve got lots of food. The same is true of people; obviously we all know if you’re unwell, it’s important to have healthy food and so on, because that helps build your strength and immunity. So creating areas with flowers is a really good way to help them.

But also it isn’t just about bees, because if you try and restore these flowery habitats, then it helps hundreds of other species as well. Starting with the flowers, obviously, there are all these interesting, beautiful wildflowers that used to be quite common and many of which now are very rare. It gives them somewhere to live. Loads of other insects will come with that: the grasshoppers and crickets and beetles and flies and wasps, all sorts of other things as well. So there’s a whole rich community of creatures that live in these meadows. It’s quite dear to my heart to look after the meadows that are left and create new ones if we can, which is what I’ve been up to down in France for the last 12 years.

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You focus a lot on bringing our attention to these tiny species that we might overlook. We don’t hear about tiny bugs going extinct as often as bigger animals, and it seems to require a bit of a more complicated argument as to why it’s important to keep them going.

It’s actually easier to make. As I say in the book, if pandas were to go extinct, I think we're pretty certain it wouldn’t have any repercussions for people other than we’d be sad because we wouldn’t be able to see one at the zoo. There would be no ecological impact. But obviously, for insects that live all around us -- and the simplest example of course is bees -- then it’s really easy to explain the link to our own well-being. We wouldn’t have those beautiful flowers, we wouldn’t have the food to eat, if we didn’t have bees. So that’s an easy one; even young schoolchildren understand that bees do something useful, pollinating flowers.

What’s a little bit harder is the next step, but I think bees are a good way into talking about this. Actually, we also depend on everything else that’s involved in the fabric of life: that there are worms that keep the soil healthy, there are beetles and flies that recycle animal manure, there are birds and insects that eat the pests off our crops. It’s all interlinked and although, from a purely selfish “what do they do for us?” standpoint, we probably don’t need every species on the planet, we certainly know that to keep ecosystems healthy we need lots of species. We don’t really know how many. But we do know that they don’t work as well if you start losing species, so we should be looking after all these little things. It’s madness not to.

But actually, I think it’s kind of sad that we have to try and justify conserving things for what they do for us. That’s kind of selfish, isn’t it? How self-centered are we, exactly? Surely these things deserve to live for their own sake, whether they do anything for us or not or whether we appreciate them or not. You might never see them, they might live at the North Pole, but they still have a right to survive and we shouldn’t just wipe them out or start saying, “It’s alright to let these species go extinct, but these ones actually pollinate our crops so we'd better look after them.” That seems like a bit of a sad approach to take.

From a practical standpoint, when we talk about actually creating more habitats and wild spaces, how much work and investment needs to go into that? It sounds kind of intimidating: We have all this agricultural land; how can we restore everything that we’ve taken away? Do you see it as a challenge that we can meet?

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Absolutely. There were some really interesting calculations, actually. I’m at the University of Sussex, and there’s a guy just down the corridor called Jörn Scharlemann. He’s been involved in some projects to try and work out what it would cost to set up a network of nature reserves all around the world to protect all the rarest birds and mammals and amphibians and reptiles. It obviously would help to conserve a lot of other things as well... we’re getting a bit away from bees and flowers here, but bear with me. They worked out that the annual cost of this -- it was something like $75 billion a year. And you think the conservation world can’t afford that, so what are we going to do? But actually, to put it in perspective, that sum is just 20 percent of what the world spends on fizzy drinks every year.

So it just goes to show that actually we could easily afford to do an amazing amount if we wanted to. We spend ridiculous amounts of money on fighting wars and other things that we probably didn’t need to do. Yet we won’t spend relatively small sums of money on saving the world, which seems incredibly shortsighted. There are single corporations that could afford to pay for all of this if they wanted to; it’s not unaffordable. To come back to farming and flowers and so on, maybe we need to sacrifice a small percentage of crop yield to give over to looking after wildlife, set aside a little bit more land than we do at present. That really is doable; there’s nothing stopping us from doing it other than greed, basically.

Not going to lie, the final essay in your book -- about man's long history of destroying the environment -- left me a little pessimistic about the idea that we could summon that will to actually do it.

We could, but I don’t know if we will. It isn’t too late for most things. Well, obviously some things are already extinct, some things will go extinct even if we all turn over a new leaf tomorrow. But most of life is still surviving on planet Earth. If we could really get enough people enthused about doing something then it could make a difference.

The problem is at the moment that it’s just a small minority of people that are really concerned about things going extinct and the damage we’re doing to the environment. I think people haven’t really grasped the scale of it and the implications for them long-term -- or perhaps not for them, but for their children and their grandchildren. If people really understood that we were going to be leaving this rather sad, grubby world with most of its wonder lost if we’re not careful for our grandchildren to live in, then they’d be horrified and they’d want to do something. But I think most people just don’t know at the moment.

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It’s a difficult one though, because people do tend to turn off if you’re too negative: “You’re destroying the world, everything’s going to go extinct.” People feel a bit helpless: “What can I do about pandas or polar bears or tigers or whatever?” But bees, again, are quite nice, because people can help. Grow some flowers in your garden, stop using so many pesticides. So you can do something yourself to help, and maybe getting people involved that way helps to then get them involved in the bigger issues as well. It feels like we have to do what we can.


Lindsay Abrams

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