The hum of traffic mingles with the sound of birds. My vision is hazy through my beekeeping veil, and my hands are clumsy in thick work gloves. It’s early November, and I’m at an urban garden in Saint Paul helping Erin Rupp, executive director of Pollinate Minnesota, a pollinator advocacy organization, winterize her teaching beehives. These hives are scattered across the Twin Cities in gardens, rooftops and at our very own Ordway Field Station. Each year around this time, Erin does what she can to help her bees make it through the winter. This is easier said than done.
Beekeepers in the United States reported losing an estimated 42.1 percent of their hives last year. In some places, such as Minnesota, that percentage is significantly higher. This continues a nine-year trend of alarming decline. Over the 2014-15 seasonal year, Minnesota beekeepers lost more than half of their hives on average. That means that a few weeks from now when it is warm enough for Erin to check her hives, she may face losing six of her 13 hives.
With the smoker creating a protective haze around us, we work quickly to peek inside the hive, place a layer of baked sugar that will provide extra food in the lean months, check for signs of disease or mites and finish by sheathing the hive boxes with sun-absorbent black cardboard. Erin is gentle with the bees, brushing them aside before she closes the box. I can tell she worries about them in the resigned way you worry about something you can’t control.
We know surprisingly little about what is causing Pollinator Decline, previously known as Colony Collapse Disorder. The only thing we know for sure is that there is something very wrong with our bees, along with many other pollinator species including butterflies and moths.
In 2014, President Obama issued a memorandum directing the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to investigate the issue and come up with a strategy to address it. This spring, the United Nations released a global assessment claiming that many pollinator species, including the honeybee, face extinction. Researchers from across the country and around the world are scrambling to figure out what is going on with bees.
The best we can figure is that Pollinator Decline is the result of several interacting causes. Disease, habitat loss, parasitic mites and pesticides combine to put a huge amount of stress on pollinator immunity and nutrition. According to University of Minnesota bee expert Dr. Marla Spivak, even just the combined effects of disease and mites are enough to kill a hive. When poor forage and exposure to insecticides are thrown into the mix, the results can be devastating.
As an intern for Erin last fall, I developed a profound appreciation and love for bees. They fill our landscapes with color. They are social and highly cooperative. They give us honey for our tea, baklava and cornbread. They communicate with each other through a dance language known officially as the “waggle dance.” They produce enough food to feed themselves all winter long. Beyond the charismatic qualities of bees and other pollinators, they are also an absolutely vital part of our food systems and economy.
Plants that depend on pollination make up 35 percent of the food we grow, with global production valued at up to $577 billion per year. Pollinated crops contribute $29 billion to farm incomes in the United States. Almonds, apples, blueberries, melons, squash and many more crops depend on the commercially managed bees that are the main source of pollination in the United States. These beekeepers move their hives all over the country in semi-trucks to provide this service. Without them, we would still technically be able to feed ourselves, but our diets would lack color, diversity and nutrition.
Minnesota used to be a haven of bee forage where a beekeeper could safely rest and replenish their bees during the off-season. This region was one of the last places where bees could thrive. Now beekeepers are finding that there is nowhere for them to go where their bees will have the good nutrition and protection from insecticides they need to resist the disease and parasitic mites that are a reality of modern beekeeping.
Bees are in trouble. In some ways, there is little we can do about it. Disease and mites are easily transmitted from hive to hive as a result of the mobile lifestyle that is a necessary component of keeping bees. We are only beginning to understand how to treat disease and fight “Varroa Destructor,” the parasitic mite affecting bees everywhere. There seems to be little hope that we will find a solution to these stressors any time soon.
The best hope we have may be creating habitat that is good for foraging and banning pesticides known to negatively impact pollinators. Through Pollinate Minnesota, Erin lobbies the Minnesota State Legislature to do both of these things. The problem is that there is a lack of scientific consensus that anything specific is causing Pollinator Decline. Because of this uncertainty, authorities have been hesitant to act on specific causes, a hesitance which has most often manifested as a resistance to banning insecticides.
A specific class of widely-used insecticides known as neonicotinoids or neonics has been extensively shown to be lethal to bees in certain doses and significantly disruptive of behavior and bee health even in non-lethal doses. A movement to ban neonics has grown, mainly in Europe and the United States. In 2013, the European Commission announced a ban on three bee-harming neonics in 15 countries including France, Germany, Spain and Sweden. This ban received a lot of attention because it is based on the “precautionary principle:” the idea that when the effects of a product are disputed, that disruption is reason enough to resist its use.
Unfortunately for bees, neonics are the most widely used insecticides in the world, and the United States does not have a history of practicing the precautionary principle in its environmental legislation. Most corn and soybean seed in the U.S. is pre-treated with a neonic, and neonic sprays are widely sold and used in conventional agriculture. There is often no alternative for farmers. The companies that produce these insecticides, including Syngenta and Bayer Inc., have lobbied heavily for continued use of the pesticide until the science is conclusive. Erin, and many others, say that by then it might be too late for bees.
Should the United States deviate from a long history of environmental legislation based on absolute scientific consensus to act on time-sensitive, scientifically-likely threats? Should Macalester support such an action? In my opinion the answer to these questions is yes, especially because the stakes are so high.
Legislation should of course be backed by hard science, but at what point does waiting for absolute consensus do more harm than good? Have we learned nothing from decades of failing to listen to the warnings of scientists about climate change? As critical thinkers at Macalester, we can agree that sometimes waiting until you are absolutely sure about something can mean that the window of opportunity for meaningful action closes. I posit this dangerous patience is the case with Pollinator Decline.
That is why I propose a resolution to ban neonics on Macalester’s campus and encourage other institutions to do the same. Not only would we create a bee-friendly habitat on our campus, but we would also encourage our community to consider the impacts of neonics in our gardens, on our lawns and in the production the food that we buy. Macalester College Student Government will vote on this resolution next Tuesday.
The truth is, what is happening to our pollinators is only a symptom of an even bigger problem. The way we grow the food you and I need to survive is not sustainable. And by sustainable I do not mean “environmentally friendly” or “green.” I mean that we are degrading our soil, disrupting our agroecological systems and changing our climate on such a massive scale that the ability of future generations to grow food will be severely compromised. We are already seeing these systems break down, and Pollinator Decline is a prime example of this reality.
I love bees, but you do not have to love them to acknowledge their importance. Macalester does not need to wait for absolute scientific certainty to act. Our action sends a message to our community about our values and our hopes for the future. There are so many things we do not have power to change. This is something real and concrete we can do to invest in the future.
Thank you to Erin Rupp, Jerry Nelson, Nathan Lief, Suzanne Savanick Hansen and Ian Calaway for making this resolution possible.