The other really big part of the story—the third-largest threat to bees—is the loss of forage, which affects bee nutrition. Bees are literally starving for lack of food, and those who survive are often more susceptible to illness, just as a human with poor nutrition will be more susceptible to disease.
Many bees spend their summers in the Midwest, where historically there have been miles and miles of native grasslands filled with wildflowers. The federal government has encouraged farmers to leave land fallow, through its Conservation Reserve Program. There’s an effort in the current farm bill, however, to cut that funding because it sounds wasteful—paying farmers not to produce. Already millions of acres of bee pasture have gone into the production of corn and soybeans, which means less food for bees in the summer.
The MOON: What about cell phone signals? For a while there was concern that they were interfering with bees’ navigational system, making it difficult for them to find their way to forage and back to the hive.
vanEngelsdorp: There has been no evidence found that cell phone signals interfere with bee navigation or pose a threat to bees.
The MOON: Why should we care about the health of bees, or beekeepers? What difference does it make to a person living in the city, who isn’t concerned about farming, or almonds, and prefers sugar over honey?
vanEngelsdorp: That’s an extremely short-sighted question. One in every three bites we eat is directly or indirectly pollinated by bees: fruit, vegetables, dairy, beef. The cows eat alfalfa, which is pollinated by bees. Unless you’re happy eating nothing but gruel you should care about the future of bees.
The MOON: We’ve heard some pretty bizarre claims about grocery store honey in recent years…that most of it isn’t honey at all, but syrup sweetened by other means.
vanEngelsdorp: That isn’t my area of expertise. You should talk to the National Honey Board about that. If the honey is labeled “U.S. Grade A Honey,” it’s that and you shouldn’t be concerned. Of course, the best thing to do for bees and beekeepers is to buy local honey from local beekeepers, at your local farmers’ market or health food store. If the honey is imported, it’s harder to know for sure what you’re buying.
The MOON: Despite the grave threats to pollinators, you recommend various do-it-yourself remedies, such as planting meadows instead of lawns, and becoming a backyard or rooftop beekeeper. What is the thinking behind these remedies?
vanEngelsdorp: Everyone should make a point at some time in their life of being present with a beekeeper at the opening of a hive. Add it to your bucket list; it’s a life-changing experience. The hive acts as one unit, one super-organism, a living, breathing unit made up of thousands of individuals. That’s kind of breath-taking to witness.
Bees are incredibly successful organisms and their strength has been in their ability to cooperate. It’s inspiring to see the power of cooperation, and it’s magical to see sisters working together to make liquid gold. So often we think of evolution as being about competition, but bees have evolved with flowers and flowers have evolved with bees through cooperation. Cooperation, too, can create great things: the survival of the most beautiful.
Another benefit of working with bees is that you have to be calm, so they provide a good feedback mechanism for being in a Zen-like state. You can work with bees with very little protection if you’re calm.
Finally, if you keep bees for a couple of years you will become very attuned to your environment, because bees are very attuned to the environment. You start to notice things you overlooked before—and being more present to your surroundings enriches your experience of life.
The other thing I recommend for the sake of bees is to plant meadows instead of lawns. Lawns are sterile. They’re green deserts. We’ve been told that lawns are beautiful and that flowering plants are weeds because they compete with our lawns. But lawns were once the landscaping only of the nobility in Europe. There’s nothing inherently superior about a lawn, other than its unnaturalness. You can have a meadow and still mow it if you don’t want it to get too high.
Besides planting meadows instead of lawns at our homes, we can plant—or allow—meadows to grow along roadsides, between crop rows, in cemeteries, at the edges of land put to other purposes, and the landscape would be much more interesting. Plus it would feed bees, butterflies, hummingbirds, and other beneficial pollinators.
The MOON: Are these recommendations enough to save bees and other pollinators? Do certain insecticides need to be banned? Does the whole practice of monoculture need to be rethought? What are more systemic changes you would like to see made to ensure the future of pollinators—and hence, of food?
vanEngelsdorp: The environmentalist in me says, “Yes, let’s diversify the system. Get rid of monoculture.” But pragmatically, monoculture is probably the reason that most of us can live in cities and only two percent of us grow the crops that feed us. So, rather than throw out monoculture, I try to look for ways that we can make monoculture safe for bees, as well as for other plants that benefit bees, ducks, bats, frogs, and other beneficial species. How do we incorporate more diversity into monoculture? I think we can do this much more easily than reinvent the monoculture system.
Why do we spray weeds at the side of the road or the end of a crop row or along fences and driveways? If we can make monoculture more sophisticated we’ll yield really big gains for pollinators and other organisms.
I also think we need to think more strategically about pesticide use. Many growers spray by the calendar, according to a schedule, rather than assessing whether there is really any need for them to spray. That’s recreating the problem we’ve discovered with indiscriminate use of antibiotics: we’re creating super-pests. Instead, we should only treat the sick, not the well too.
Home gardeners also need to be educated and much more careful about their pesticide use. Studies show that home gardeners treating ornamentals and garden plants use a lot more pesticides per acre than farmers. If the directions say, “squirt once,” they’ll tend to squirt seven times, expecting to kill the insect on the spot, not realizing how the pesticide works. Nor do home gardeners realize some basics such as not using fungicides when plants are flowering.
The City of Toronto has banned the use of herbicides within city limits—so that clover, dandelions, and other flowering plants are either pulled by hand, or included in urban lawns. That’s a bee-friendly decision that more cities could implement.