“Help our bees!” “Save our pollinators!”
As long as we consider them ours, can we save them? Here are four thoughts about protecting bees for bees’ sake.
Thought 1. Honey is bee food.
We help ourselves to their pollen, honey, and other secretions. But all bee products are made by bees to feed bees.
Before we mechanized our relationship with bees, we co-evolved with them. And bees co-evolved with the plants—plants that produce berries, tomatoes, squashes and melons and peppers—that they pollinate.
Vegan-organic growing (called “veganic” growing in North America) supports hands-off, natural pollination. The diversity of organic gardens, in turn, creates rich habitat for bees and other pollinators.
Thought 2. As grocery shoppers, we’re enmeshed with the commercial honeybee trade.
Bumblebees can keep moving past sunset; their buzzing is the key to abundant tomato growth. Honeybees congregate, so they’re used as mass producers on California’s almond farms, and often worked to death. Chemicals sprayed on almond crops include glyphosate, an herbicide lethal to bees.
The more crops we demand, the more bees are used. “Commercial honeybees are considered livestock by the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” Annette McGivney observes. “But no other class of livestock comes close to the scorched-earth circumstances that commercial honeybees face.”
Thought 3. Bees create billions of dollars on humanity’s terms. Perhaps colony collapse is their Great Resignation.
“Honey bees are like flying dollar bills buzzing over U.S. crops,” says the Food and Drug Administration. Amounting to $15 billion a year, bee deployment is the most lucrative practice in global agribusiness. But some sectors are losing their prerogative to take infinite advantage of bees’ work.
Bees aren’t employees; they can’t quit. But they can die off, overcome by stress and disease.
They must know they’ve lost control over their lives. They have brains. They communicate, collaborate, and form abstract concepts. They resist our dominion. They attempt to flee the greenhouses in which they’re forced to work.
Thought 4. Beekeeping is not bee conservation.
The beekeepers’ honeybees aren’t native to North America. As components of colonial agriexpansion, they’re deployed to pollinate colonial crops. In general, claims of human reliance on honeybees are overstated; and in the Americas, no native plants depend on the western honeybee (Apis mellifera) at all. Honeybees are trafficked bees. So, as pollination ecologist Jeff Ollerton has observed, keeping hives to save the bees is like keeping chickens to save the birds.
And keeping hives includes its own special torments. From time to time, beekeepers take the bees’ honey and replace it with sugar or corn syrup. Because beekeeping means transporting bees and keeping hives close together, it encourages mites and infectious diseases. Some keepers torch hives to kill the mites.
Researchers are now developing genetic models to breed bees for resistance to diseases and mites. As with most of the emergencies that arise when we pervert nature and overwhelm its capacity to support us, we regard technology as the panacea.
The Ones We Need to Save: Bumblebees
The American bumblebee (Bombus pensylvanicus) population has declined by nearly 90% and may soon be listed under the Endangered Species Act, following a 2021 petition from the Center for Biological Diversity and the Bombus Pollinator Association of Law Students of Albany Law School.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service recently listed Franklin’s bumblebees (Bombus franklini) as endangered—many years since the Xerces Society requested the listing in 2010. These bees haven’t been spotted in their northern California and southwestern Oregon territories since the last lone worker bee was seen in 2006. Rusty patched bumblebees (Bombus affinis) are also protected under the Act. More than a fourth of North American bumble bee communities face extinction risks.
Understanding climate disruptions on bees, researchers say, is vital. Stronger storms, heatwaves and droughts could impact the movement and nesting of bees, and promote diseases and parasites, as well as premature plant flowering and the loss of plant life.
According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, we need a global bee database. Yet there are things we can do now, before it’s too late to apply anything we might learn in the future.
Respect for Bees: How to Make a Start
What can each of us do right now?
Eat like a vegan. If we respect bees and their own natural evolution, we’re well-advised to avoid the products of animal agribusiness. Animal ag consumes massive amounts of feed, so it’s responsible for most bee use and importation. Dairy companies use alfalfa feed crops. Megachile rotundata, the alfalfa leafcutting bees, are indigenous to Eurasia.
Buy organic. A study by Christina M. Kennedy and 40 other researchers concluded that “the most important factors enhancing wild bee communities in agroecosystems were the amounts of high-quality habitats surrounding farms in combination with organic management and local-scale field diversity.” With the prevalence of large monocultures, they added, “the amount and diversity of habitats for wild bees in the surrounding landscape become even more important.”
Devote a patch of garden space to the cause. Ninebark and pussy willow have special value for indigenous bees. Gooseberry or camas lilies are vital spring blooms in the Pacific Northwest. Beardtongue graces the North American prairies (defend and restore the prairies!) in May and June, and liquorice mint blooms all summer. Indigenous azaleas and rhododendrons, native joe-pye weed, sedum and bee balm delight bees. Eastern waterleaf is a familiar summer presence from eastern Canada across the northern United States. In autumn, goldenrod, tickseed, and native asters keep a garden buzzing.
The growers at the Vegan Organic Network advise us all to do some gardening. Even a little. Steer clear of non-native, ornamental varieties of plants. Say no to pesticides and herbicides. Let the dandelions and clover be. Lose the leafblower. Bumblebees need unkempt garden spaces to make nests.
Most important of all is our mindset. Let’s transcend the claim that all life revolves around us. Let bees thrive on their terms.
The author thanks Ben Wunderman for examining a draft of this piece and suggesting substantial improvements.