Honeybee Collapse is the Result of Their

Enslavement in Industrial Monocultures

A monoculture of almond trees (photo: Steve Corey)
A monoculture of almond trees
(photo: Steve Corey)

As you may have noticed, last week the media was once again filled with yet another round of collapsing honeybee stories, this time the coverage being about the loss of 42.1 percent of hives in the US over the past year, the second largest die-off on record.

As has been the recurring case though, thanks in part to beekeepers making splits with their hives (creating two hives out of one, in short), hive numbers have actually increased this year in comparison to last year's. This doesn't however mean that the honeybees' health is improving, a quote in the Washington Post giving a bit of the backstory.

What has emerged is a complex set of pressures on managed and wild bee populations that includes disease, a parasite known as the varroa mite, pesticides, extreme weather and poor nutrition tied to a loss of forage plants.

Well, yes and no. While Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is fortunately not being singled out this time as the sensationalist bogeyman, the beating around the bush still goes on, effectively clouding over the overarching issue (their poor nutrition is tied to more than just a loss of forage plants, while the "disease" they must deal with is more than just another checkbox on a list). In short, the core of the problem afflicting the majority of honeybees is that they are confined to living out their lives amongst fields of monocultures in the industrial agricultural system.

For starters, with the creation of monocultures encompassing hundreds and sometimes thousands of acres, farms are no longer able to provide the living environment necessary to maintain honeybee colonies, and in many cases even wild pollinators. Although, say, a large blueberry "farm" may provide an immense supply of flowers for nectar and pollen, being a monoculture means that there is only one plant, and as this sole plant may only flower for a few weeks or even a few days of the year, this doesn't provide enough time for the honeybees to collect their needed supplies for the barren winter months.

Since these monoculture fields are essentially floral deserts for most of the year, to a large extent various native insects – wild pollinators – are similarly unable to exist amongst the dearth of flowers. In fact, there are now parts of China where bees have already gone extinct, requiring apple orchards to employ between twenty and twenty-five people to pollinate a hundred trees, something wild pollinators or a couple of hives worth of bees would normally be able to do.

But rather than being generally seen as an example of bad farming and something to rectify, these circumstances have resulted in a whole new industry of their own, for honeybee pollination has become big business indeed. As stated by Jeff Pettis, head of the US federal government’s bee research laboratory in Beltsville, MD, and co-author of the recent beehive survey,

If beekeepers are going to meet the growing demand for pollination services, researchers need to find better answers to the host of stresses that lead to both winter and summer colony losses.

Beehives being transported for pollination
(photo: Robert Thomson)

But here lies a large part of the problem. Owing to its status of quasi domestication (I say "quasi" since honeybees aren't really domesticated but rather retain their wildness while inhabiting artificial domains we provide for them), the honeybee has become an ideal pollinator to be shifted around in order to cater to the whims of monocultures. In fact, large beekeepers now make most of their money from "pollination services" rather than from sales of honey or other bee products.

Beehives being transported for pollination
(photo: Robert Thomson)

In an area encompassing roughly 17,000 acres in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia, approximately one-fifth of the world's blueberries are grown requiring almost 70,000 hives for pollination, coming from all over B.C. and Alberta. That however pales in comparison to the massive mono-forest of roughly 600,000 acres in the central valley of California that grows about 82 percent of the world's almonds.

In three weeks of February every year, more than 1 million hives (of 2.74 million in the US, down from a peak of about 6 million in the 1950s) make their way from as far away as New England and thirty-eight states in total in order to pollinate the crop. Added to by hives flown in from Australia on 747 jumbo jets to supplement struggling hive numbers, what results is a massive bee slum where all sorts of microbes and parasites from around the country get passed around, the bees none the better for it all due to their already compromised immune systems. Why might they be compromised?

Stuck on a diet of almond nectar, or blueberry nectar, or whatever the next crop may be, while the individual nectar and pollen from these crops may be healthy forms of food, honeybees are forced to feed on a homogeneous diet – resembling one where humans eat only bananas for three weeks, then broccoli for one week, carrots for two weeks, and so on. The result is a kind of rotational mono diet that lacks the nutrition provided by a well-rounded diet, exacerbating the malnourished and weakened state that leaves honeybees more prone to disease. As reported in the journal Bee Culture,

a decline in plant diversity could very well be causing a... decline in bee populations. Honeybees that pollinate on a wider variety of plants have a more robust immune system than bees which pollinate on monocrops, even when the monocrops had higher protein content.

One result of all this is that honeybees in the industrial system are routinely treated with antibiotics to combat bacterial infections, to the extent that many bees carry antibiotic resistant bacteria in their guts.

Yes, beehives in the industrial system routinely get filled up with sugar syrup the same way cars get filled up with gasoline

As if that weren't all enough, the honeybees' two sources of food, nectar (which they transform into honey for storage purposes, and which provides them with minerals, vitamins and enzymes) and pollen (which is their excellent source of protein and other nutrients), are just as much a victim of the monoculture mind-set.

Because honey and pollen can command a pretty penny on the market, many beekeepers – particularly the larger ones – actually remove all the honeybees' stores of honey and pollen. Since this leaves the bees with nothing to survive on over the winter, their pollen is then replaced with soy patties, while their honey is swapped for a sugar syrup if not high fructose corn syrup.

Yes, beehives in the industrial system routinely get filled up with sugar syrup the same way cars get filled up with gasoline
The cornbee, the soybee, the sugarybee
(photo courtesy of Christina Gandolfo)

Having had their wholesome & nutrient-rich (albeit monoculture-sourced) honey and pollen supplemented or even taken away from them, the modern honeybee is often forced to live off a diet that not only puts stress on its digestive systems and compromises its immune systems, but whose equivalency for us humans would be called junk food.

The cornbee, the soybee, the sugarybee
(photo courtesy of Christina Gandolfo)

On top of all that, not only then must honeybees cope and live amongst the insecticides necessary for monoculture "farms" and golf courses and suburban lawns and such (be they neonicotinoids or not), but because of their poor health, strips of insecticides are also commonly placed inside hives to kill off Varroa mites and other plagues, which honeybees are now too unhealthy to ward off. In case you need me to spell it out, insecticides kill insects, and yes, honeybees are in fact insects themselves.

So while there is no doubt that CCD and other sensationalist news stories have created the awareness that "like, gee whiz, bees are dying," it would certainly be fair to ponder whether they have done all that much to inform us of the greater problem honeybees – and wild pollinators – must attempt to live amongst. But truth be told, they largely haven't, for what has instead resulted is an audience that has deferred to a phalanx of "experts," who in true superhero style are expected to save the day with an array of techno fixes that will vanquish CCD and other honeybee problems to the dustbin of history.

These ones get the high fructose corn syrup treatment, which is often derived from GMO corn
These ones get the high fructose corn syrup treatment, which is often derived from GMO corn

But in reality, CCD and much else that honeybees suffer from are actually symptoms of a much greater problem, the problem of industrial agriculture. As author Rowan Jacobsen put it in his excellent book Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honeybee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis,

Until local agriculture replaces global agriculture, there will always be another parasite, another virus, another mysterious collapse.

'Nuff said.


NOTE: For those of you who read my post from last month on the Flow™ hive, Don't Go With the Flow, Go With the Wax, a little bit of an update. Turns out that the Flow™ hive frames are created via 3D printing, which to me is just a bit too techno weird (and so in the grand scheme of things, utterly unsustainable). Otherwise, it seems that there fortunately isn't going to be a bounty on my head when I return to Australia after all, as not only did the Flow™ hive end up pulling in more than $12 million via its Indiegogo campaign, but when the Flow™ hive's site began taking orders for the first time the other day, it had such an overwhelming response that its website crashed. Woe be the honeybee.

This post has been translated into Croatian by the online publication Hrvatski Focus and can be read here. Croatian translations of From Filmers to Farmers posts can be found here.

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Johann
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May 2015
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Worth bearing in mind that most of these colonies which are collapsing and otherwise struggling wouldn't exist in the first place were it not for industrial agriculture and large-scale (industrial?) commercial beekeeping. The are a product of that system and the system is having trouble maintaining one of its necessary components.
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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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Aug 2014
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Johann: You make a good point. One might then say that Colony Collapse Disorder is a symptom of the faltering industrial beekeeping system, while Honeybee Collapse Disorder is a symptom of the faltering industrial agricultural system. Cheers!
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Irv Mills
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3
May 2015
I think you've gone right to the heart of it, Allan. I'm seeing a lot of controversy on the subject of bees lately, people yelling endless talking points at each other, without listening to the other side. But the idea that bees don't fit into industrial monocultures strikes me as likely very close to the truth.
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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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Aug 2014
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Irv: For that matter, humans probably don't fit very well into industrial monocultures either, eh?
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Grant
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May 2015
http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2015/05/building-bees/mann-text

My first thoughts to above link, Silly scientists. I suspect that if you feed any bee just corn syrup, it would be its kryptonite.

& then the insecticides.
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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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Aug 2014
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Grant: I remember reading that in the US and Canada some people were importing from Europe the Russian strain of Apis Mellifera, as opposed to the more conventional Italian and Carolinian ones. The Russian's are well suited to the colder climates, as well, show a propensity for gnawing the Varroa mites off of their fellow bees. I recall the name of Kirk Webster as someone who has been partaking in the "live and let die" approach of trying to select for a hardier honeybee which would be able to fend off the mites.
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Blair T. Longley
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5
Feb 2015
ALL stories like the one above track back to the FUNDING OF POLITICS. The existing monetary system, as frauds by privately controlled banks, which are enforced by governments, is the most extreme example of that problem of the history of the FUNDING OF POLITICS. However, every other issue follows the same basic pattern of crazy corruption, where the profits from frauds are able to be reinvested in more frauds.

There is an overwhelming amount of JUNK SCIENCE, involved in vicious feedback loops, where those who profit from the established systems of legalized lies, backed by legalized violence, are then able to continue to dominate the FUNDING OF POLITICS. Every time that one attempts to come up with any better resolutions to the problems created by crazy corrupt governments serving the short-term special interests, one runs into the PRACTICAL IMPOSSIBILITY OF OVERCOMING THE ALREADY ESTABLISHED PATTERNS OF THE FUNDING OF POLITICS.

I have spent the last few decades working on that problem, because it is theoretically the most important one, where the maximum leverage exists. However, the only thing that has happened after working on that problem was that the more that I learned, the worse it got! There is a long list of problems similar to the problems observed with bees. They all follow the same patterns, whereby governments are almost inconceivably crazy and corrupt, and that is automatically getting worse, faster ...

Every attempt to propose possible solutions to any of the problems (manifested on the long list of similar problems) always run into the same obstacles regarding the FUNDING OF POLITICS. After the crazy corruption of the public "money" supply was achieved, then everything else automatically became runaway vicious spirals of more and more crazy corruption, through the subsequent FUNDING OF POLITICS driving the enforcement of frauds, along with the matching evil deliberate ignorance.

Pretty well every problem would require solutions that were in the public interest, that would limit the short-term profits of some vested special interests. NONE of those kinds of solutions have a hope in hell of actually being implemented due to the ways that the FUNDING OF POLITICS has been operating. After one appreciates the magnitude of the social insanities represented by the existing monetary and taxation systems being extremely unbalanced in favour of tiny minorities of the population, against everyone else, one then can put all other issues, such as those related to bees, into an overall perspective.

Tragically, there are NO practical political solutions, because there are no ways to prevent the FUNDING OF POLITICS from continuing to be extremely unbalanced, and automatically getting worse, faster. The basic monetary system has become like a metastasizing cancer, that is killing the society that is it growing within. That original crazy corruption was due to the ways that the FUNDING OF POLITICS could achieve the creation of criminally insan
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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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Aug 2014
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Blair: Hmmm. Well, I know that one of the wings of the New Zealand Parliament House here in Wellington is called the Beehive. But I don't know how much I'd say that the problems I mentioned with bees can be ultimately traced back to the funding of politics. Kind of lets us smaller guys off the hook a bit too easily. Although I certainly agree that the monetary system needs to be changed, there's much more that can be done in the meantime.

As my friend put it, "not much can be fixed until we fix the monetary system, but just fixing the monetary system isn't necessarily going to fix anything."
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Blair T. Longley
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Feb 2015
"... nothing can be fixed until we fix the monetary system, but just fixing the monetary system isn't necessarily going to fix anything."

Yes!

That IS the kind of Catch 22 we are facing!
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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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Blair: Yeah, no easy solutions, eh?

EDIT 04/06/2015: I should have pointed out that I wasn't implying a Catch-22, nor do I think it's one. What I was implying (via my friend's statement) was that although the monetary system needs a revamping, just doing that alone won't automatically fix things. Supposing that actually happened, there would still be a lot more to do in various other fields. Not a Catch-22, just a lot to do.
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Vivi
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May 2015
I'm not a bee keeper, just a general biologist, so this may be a silly question, but why are they treating arachnid-infestations in hives with "strips of insecticide"? Mites aren't insects.
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Allan Stromfeldt Christensen
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Aug 2014
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Vivi: Huh, good question. At first I thought that maybe I had used the terminology incorrectly. But upon double checking, no, one of the most common brands of strips, Checkmite+, is listed as being an insecticide. However, Checkmite+ strips are also used for the purpose of getting rid of Small Hive Beetles – which do count as insects. Maybe that's why?

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