Bee No More: Population Decline and Soil Health

In order for us to save the bees, we must realize that the true cause of declining bees is hidden in our soil, and it’s up to all of us to take action.

| December 2019/January 2020

Photo by Getty Images/flyparade

I was asked to present at the American Honey Producers Association meeting in San Antonio, Texas, in 2014. I explained to the beekeepers that if I presented the science I’d uncovered on pesticides at a national meeting, it would be the end of my career as a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) research scientist. Their response was, “Tell the truth, Jon, and the beekeepers will have your back.” Six years later, both of those statements have proven to be correct.

Nearly everyone cared about bees at that time. Colony collapse was receiving international attention as the U.S. honeybee population plummeted year after year. National annual hive losses went from historic averages of 11 percent to more than 50 percent, and queen longevity went from 3 years to 6 months.

Working groups of various stakeholders popped up everywhere, each with a formula for saving the bees. Nearly every land grant university invested in a honeybee specialist who could take advantage of the research grant programs springing to life. Beekeepers could show up in Washington, D.C., and have an instant meeting in the Secretary of Agriculture’s office, or with the Administrators of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

After a year or two, consensus formed as to why the bees were dying. The four main causes of bee decline were identified as a lack of flowers; Varroa mite (a parasite that eats the fatty tissues of bees); viruses and other diseases; and, sometimes, pesticides. I argued then — and still argue now — that these are only symptoms of the problem.

Fast forward to today. Bees are occasionally in the news, and, in general, the public knows the bees are dying. But much of the momentum behind saving them has been lost. Research and outreach projects have advanced our understanding of the bee collapse in incremental steps. Despite this, compelling arguments can be made that we’re losing more hives than ever, and that beekeeping as an industry will likely be dead soon if something doesn’t change.

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