Honeybees and America in Trouble

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Honeybee. Photo: Evaggelos Vallianatos


In 2019, the cinematographer Peter Nelson made a documentary of the fate and plight of honeybees. The film starts with numerous semi-trucks carrying hundreds of hives for the pollination of almonds in California or fruits and vegetables and nuts in California and elsewhere in the country. I was startled seeing these giant trucks loading and unloading hives like large square bricks. I could see a factory in action or a busy harbor loading and unloading goods.

But behind the lights and sounds and dust of trucks loaded with about 400 to 450 hives speeding in highways or unloading them on farmers’ land, there is an extremely important story. The Pollinators documentary does tell this dramatic story truthfully, effectively, and well. The story is about the trials of both honeybees and beekeepers — and the rest of us, whether or not we are protecting this extremely important insect, Apis mellifera, or we keep renewing the license of agribusiness to keep killing them. A review of the film insisted that, “The trials of the humble honeybee are magnified to epic proportions in the meticulous, magnificent documentary “The Pollinators.”

The story of the pollinators

Yes, the documentary was meticulous and honest. Beekeepers, some family farmers, and biologists spoke openly about the prevailing practice of moving hundreds of hives from all over the country to farms everywhere in the country with pollinating needs. These farmers are growing vegetables, nuts, and fruits and almonds. This includes the gigantic one-million acre almond plantation of California.

But was the documentary magnificent? Not really. The story is tragic, revealing some truths I learned during my 25-year service at the US Environmental Protection Agency. Indeed, I was so thunderstruck by the willful negligence of EPA senior political officials in granting approvals to chemical warfare-like neurotoxic pesticides / biocides, that I wrote a chapter on honeybees in my book, Poison Spring: The Secret History of Pollution and the EPA.

The tragedy comes on stage in the almond fields of California. Almond trees demand huge amounts of water, which California does not have. The almond trees bloom in February – March. Two hives are necessary to pollinate one-acre almond grove. Thus, about 2 million hives must be under the almond trees to pollinate one-million acres of almond trees in California. A beekeeper in the documentary says, “The almond pollination [in California] is the biggest pollination event in the U.S. bee industry. It takes almost the entire national bee supply.”

Neurotoxic pesticides are killing honeybees

Honeybees are essential for pollination for several reasons. Native pollinators are on the verge of extinction. Pesticides of conventional farming have been wiping them out. The documentary is more diplomatic, saying: “The native pollinators are in deep trouble… because they can’t move away from agriculture… in certain places their populations have plummeted. One, the rusty patched bumble bee, was just listed as an endangered species and a lot has to do with agriculture and pesticide use, in particular.”

Honeybees are no less threatened by the dope drugs of the farmers, pesticides. I remember my ecological colleagues at EPA wring memo after memo to their supervisors telling them that neurotoxins don’t mix with honeybees. The stuff then came under the chemical names of organophosphates and carbamates, both siblings to WWI chemical warfare agents. Eventually, those neurotoxins were phased out, only to be replaced by equally deleterious neurotoxins known as neonicotinoids. The Clinton administration gifted to agribusiness these horrific chemicals. Large farmers embraced these lethal weapons. Needless to say, neonicotinoids remain the killers of choice for honeybees. The Pollinators documentary paints this painful picture of neonicotinoids:

“The neonicotinoids take years to degrade in the environment, and what that means is, you’re going to continue to poison the bees
for many years after you apply these pesticides. Neonicotinoids basically work by breaking down immune system, cause the insects to lose their memory, make them sick. Whether it’s the insect or it’s a human, you know, your immune system’s broke down, you don’t want to eat, and that’s exactly what we got going on inside these honeybee hives, and, eventually, you know, we’re going to somebody’s funeral.”

EPA in the Biden administration may be rethinking (or, most likely, playing politics) in “regulating” a festering and dangerous ecological and public health reality in America. What is at stake includes the survival of the priceless honeybees, healthy farming in the form of organic farming, and hundreds of endangered and threaten species. Its latest study of 3 neonicotinoids, dated May 5, 2023, raise the threat these chemicals pose to endangered species, though I don’t thing EPA is serious. Its study suggested that the danger from neonicotinoid (in large use since the 1990s) may be limited to a small number of endangered and threatened species. Besides, EPA described the danger as “adverse modification.” As if neurotoxic neonicotinoids would modify rather than kill a honeybee.

Why honeybees are important

Honeybees have been close to humans forever. The ancient Greeks even had a god, Aristaios, to protect them, along with cheesemaking, shepherding, and olive oil making. Honey and pollination have always been precious gifts of nature. Aristotle wrote about honeybees in his History of Animals.

The beekeepers of the documentary, The Pollinators, explained the importance of honeybees, zeroing on the pesticide enemies of bees:

“Bees are important for all kinds of reasons. They’re important because we’re not capable of making all kinds of thing grow by ourselves. It’s not some kind of magic, it’s a deep biological process, of which, bees are a part. But bees are also important to us because they’re a very good kind of sentinel signal for the trouble that we’re in. There they are every day, out in the world, foraging through every cornerof the rural landscape.

“It was shocking how much pesticide and the diversity of pesticides that we were finding — herbicides, fungicides, growth regulators, insecticides, all of them showed up in samples that we collected and looked at across the country…. Wax, it turns out, is almost like a fossil record. The wax combs that the bees live in, that they put their food in, that the brood is produced in, accumulates, and holds onto these pesticide contaminants, and so it’s very hard for a beekeeper who’s doing crop pollination to protect their bees from pesticides — very hard… pesticides seem to be playing a key role in the downturn of our bee populations…. Some of the stuff we’re using is a neurotoxin that’s gonna destroy our health and children and everything else, but we’re spraying it ’cause somebody has more say and more power than we do…. Populations of honeybees are dying at levels that are unprecedented and very concerning. So, we have been seeing between 33% and close to half of the colonies in the U.S. dying every single year, which is disturbing…. We can learn a good deal from bees about the health of the landscapes that we inhabit. And sort of secondarily, we can learn a good deal about the folly of setting up our agriculture in quite the way that we have.It looked so efficient and concentrate everything in the ways that we’ve done it, but that turns out to be a false efficiency. It is the cheapest way to produce pork or corn or whatever else, but that cheapness comes at a high price, and that price is the loss of the agricultural diversity, redundancy, resiliency, that is really beyond price. You know it’s the thing that we’ve built up over 10,000 years of agriculture, and now in a kind of hundred years of industrialization, we’ve managed to get rid of most of it.”


This is valuable wisdom from people who protect honeybees and, indirectly, us who are so removed from both honeybees and nature. The Pollinators deserves to be seen by all Americans. The story of honeybees is our story.

Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of seven books, including the latest book, The Antikythera Mechanism.