It was billed as one of the most interesting, puzzling, and disturbing stories of the century: The mass death of the honeybee, the pollinator behind at least third of our food, a portent of the apocalypse.
The panic was easy to understand. A third of bee colonies suddenly collapsed in 2006. Millions of bees were here one day, gone the next — no bodies to be found. Even President Obama grew alarmed. “What are we doing on bees?” he asked his staff as the die offs continued. “Are we doing enough?”
But there comes a point in every public panic when it’s time to stop propping up the mystery and face the humdrum truth. The bees are going to be fine. They’re polyamorous super-organisms! They dance as a way of communicating! They never get lost!
Here’s what you should know about the life and much-exaggerated death of the bee:
Dead bees aren’t a sign of End Times: There are more than 4,000 species of wild bees in the United States, in addition to the honeybee. However, the “bee rapture,” as it’s been billed, has nothing to do with these bees, as David Wallace-Wells reported in New York Magazine last month.
That drives a stake through the heart of any reasonable fear that bees are the dead-canaries of some on-rushing global apocalypse. If they were, then wild bees would be dying, as well. Some are, but most are healthy and scientists aren’t widely concerned, Wallace-Wells reports. Someone please tell the president.
Bees are not going extinct: Honeybees aren’t native to United States. They were brought here by European settlers, and today they are our tiniest livestock, trucked around the country to pollinate every kind of food we grow. These are the bees that have been dying in huge numbers. About half of the estimated 2.7 million colonies in this country have collapsed at least once in the last decade.
But dire predictions about a drop in bee population, leading to a food crisis, have been way overblown. Bee keepers simply replace their dead hives — for the price of a movie ticket you can buy a queen online right now — so there are just as many commercial bees in America today as there were in 2006. Dennis vanEngelsdorp, a leader of the federal effort to understand bee health, toldThe New York Times exactly what this means: “We are not worried at all that bees are going to go extinct in this country, or the world.”
We know why some bees are dying: It sucks to be a bee. Jerry Seinfeld and Pixar made it look fun “Bee Movie,” but in reality commercial bees live grinding, miserable lives of nonstop work in often toxic conditions. Oddly, these conditions didn’t come up much in the early coverage of the great bee die offs.
It was like we wanted the answer to the mystery to be simple and singular: It’s climate change, or flu vaccines, or wireless internet, or cellphone towers, or GMO food, or some dastardly new breed of agro-terrorists. To be fair, scientists were indeed stumped about the cause. None of the usual suspects could account for the mortality rate.
That is, until the scientists began to look at how the usual suspects seemed to be reinforcing one another, driving up the death toll. In a review published in Science this February, researchers concluded that the great bee decline was caused by the “combined stress” of parasites, pesticides, and habitat loss.
They concluded, in essence, that bees were dying because of overwork and illness. The likely culprit of both? Modern farming practices. Bees used to have it good. They pollinated smaller, more diverse fields. They contacted plants with fewer pesticides. They did their buzzing in abundant pasture land.
That’s no longer the case, and a lot of them have been dying. But at least now we seem to get why.
In May, the Obama administration unveiled the first “National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.” It’s a bureaucratic title, but a simple plan: More pasture land, less pesticide, and better remedies for disease.