A few months ago I received an unsolicited email from an advocacy website called Avaaz.com that warned about “the global bee emergency.”
“Quietly, globally, billions of bees are dying, threatening our crops and food,” said the website, the text sat beneath a large photo of a honey bee floating in front of a flower. “But a global ban of one group of pesticides could save bees from extinction.”
In case you skipped biology in high school, if you don't have bees, you don't have pollination. And if you don't have pollination, you don't have about 95 crops that make up a large part of our diet. Other bugs, like butterflies, can pollinate, but they're not anywhere near as efficient as the good ol' bee.
Of course I quickly signed the online petition calling for the immediate ban of the use of neonicotinoid pesticides, even though I had no idea what they were. Shortly afterward, I began to see more stories online and on television about the decline of bees. I tried to remember the last time I saw a bee. Seemed like forever. And then a few weeks ago while eating dinner with my family at The Surfside Club, I overheard my dad say he hadn’t seen a bee in years. A deep, burning anxiety grew in my pit of my stomach.
After dinner I went home and did a Google search of the words “UNL” and “bees,” and found Dr. Marion Ellis, professor and graduate chair at UNL’s Department of Entomology. According to the UNL website, Dr. Ellis teaches honey bee biology and beekeeping, and has conducted research on the detection and control of parasitic bee mites, and on protecting pollinating insects from pesticides.
I sent Dr. Ellis an email outlining my bee anxiety. He quickly replied with his home phone number, and we chatted Saturday. This is what I learned from a guy who’s been studying bees for 42 years:
First of all, the problem is real. Bees are on the decline. The central culprit is tiny parasitic mites called Varroa, which were first detected in the United States in 1987. Since then, according to Dr. Ellis, “the population of wild honey bees is close to non-existent.”
Varroa has eliminated colonies of bees that don’t have a human care taker -- i.e., a bee keeper. Dr. Ellis said bee keepers have ways of coping with the parasite, but that it makes it harder to keep large numbers of bees. “In addition to Varroa, there have been five other introduced diseases and parasites in the last 25 years,” Dr. Ellis added.
But parasites aren’t the only thing killing bees. Pesticides also play a role. “There always have been and always will be issues associated with the use of pesticides,” Dr. Ellis said.
Add to that the recent emphasis on grain production -- soybeans, wheat and corn -- and the cut back of alfalfa and meadows, reducing bee habitat. Conversely, there’s been great expansion of insect-pollinated crops, which has resulted in increased demand for bees for pollination. Did you know that about half the bee population -- including the majority of bees in Nebraska -- is shipped to California every year to pollinate almond orchards? I didn’t, either.
While bee keepers make money off honey production, their real income comes from pollination contracts, which are hard on bees, Dr. Ellis said. “Moving the hives puts stress on bees, plus they get exposed to more pesticides because of the high-value nature of the crops. It all contributes to the problem.”
Add it up: Parasites, pesticides, a switch to non-flowering crops, and stressful bee pollination contracts. The outcome: A potential catastrophe.
So what can be done? Dr. Ellis said the first thing to do is address the disease and parasite issue. The solutions come “partially through genetics, but also other creative approaches,” he said. “It’s a hard thing to deal with. It’s an arthropod on another arthropod. It’s like having a chimpanzee on my back. It’s tough to find a way to deal with the chimpanzee without hurting me in the process, and that’s the situation with the bees. The parasite and the host are closely related. It’s hard to suppress one without harming the other.“
Dr. Ellis said the federal government has made it a priority to fund research focused on the problem. The University of Nebraska is one of 16 partners that received a $4 million grant to look at honey bee health in an effort to come up with a solution.
What can you and I do? “The best things are to plant flowers and use pesticides sparingly if at all,” Dr. Ellis said. Avoid using pesticides especially when plants are in bloom. With grain crops taking over bee habitats, efforts need to be made to incorporate blooming plants in areas that are intensely farmed.
I told Dr. Ellis that the whole bee problem was freaking me out. He said freaking out was the wrong reaction.
"I don’t like to see people approach (the problem) from the freaked-out point of view,” he said. “I’d rather be motivated than paralyzed and not do anything. It’s something we can’t ignore. We need to be very determined to fix the problems, but most of them are fixable. I’d rather see people’s energies directed to that than being freaked out.”
A Post Script, for what it’s worth: The day after our interview I drove to River’s Edge Park in Council Bluffs with the dogs. We strolled down to the great lawn along the sidewalk that borders the south end. There among the trees, acres of wild flowers had been planted and were in full bloom. Stirring within the dense fabric of green and yellow and red was something I'd been looking for: Bees. Hundreds of them. They're still out there. Let's keep it that way.
Over The Edge is a weekly column by Reader senior contributing writer Tim McMahan focused on culture, society, the media and the arts. Email Tim at firstname.lastname@example.org.