Bee No More: Population Decline and Soil Health

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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.

The reason we’re on the edge of this cliff is because we didn’t understand the magnitude of what bee collapse truly meant about the state of our planet. This was never a bee problem, but we approached it as though it was. It was an agriculture problem. It was a biodiversity problem. And, most importantly, the bee collapse was a soil problem.

Seeing Is Believing

Back in 2014, I presented science showing that neonicotinoid seed treatments, or “neonics,” on soybeans were hurting farmers. (Neonics are a class of neuro-active insecticides.) Later, we conducted additional research on corn and sunflowers, and these tests showed the same results. These insecticides didn’t control key pests, meaning we were putting these chemicals into the environment for no reason. Instead, neonics were reducing predators in soybeans that might eat pests, such as soybean aphids. And, at least in sunflowers, they were reducing pollinators too.

During this time, the insecticide companies at fault aggressively tried to ensure no one thought pesticides — specifically, neonics — caused the bee decline. Billions of dollars annually rested on their ability to convince society that neonics were perfectly safe, and that farmers couldn’t survive without them. Following my 2014 talk in San Antonio, follow-up presentations by insecticide companies and federal regulatory agencies explained the poorly defended benefits of neonics to farmers. At that point, my brain solidified this undeniable link between the regulators and the companies being regulated.

Beekeepers had approached me about their bees, and asked how pesticides caused hive losses — not contributed to hive losses, but caused them. Ever a skeptic, I read a few scientific studies on the topic, and I explained to the beekeepers that the science was inconclusive as to whether the pesticides killed bees. An impassioned beekeeper exclaimed to me, “Come out to my bee yard during corn planting, and watch my bees dying in front of the hive. Then tell me the pesticides on that corn seed aren’t killing my bees.”

Dead bees covered with dust and mites on a honeycomb

Again, six years later, both of our statements have proven correct. My observation that the science was inconclusive is still accurate, and so is the observation that pesticides are killing the bees.

This confirmed the likely truth of two things. Firstly, good science was asking the wrong questions. After 20 years of researching the risks of pesticides and genetically modified crops, I can tell you that pesticides affect organisms in unpredictable ways. As such, we don’t always know the right questions to ask when examining whether a chemical is “safe” to a nontarget organism, such as the honeybee. A central challenge is that our regulatory framework is predicated on transparency and predictability; companies expect their products will be approved if they present regimented experimental safety data on them, meaning our regulatory system is really good at detecting adverse effects of a pesticide when it kills honeybees like a sledgehammer.

Generally, we now know that many pesticides don’t kill bees. Instead, they affect things such as genetics, hormones, and microbial symbionts. They likely also affect bees in ways we haven’t even thought of yet. These mechanisms don’t outright kill nontarget organisms; instead, these pesticides give them learning disabilities and autoimmune diseases, and affect reproductive capabilities that can’t be easily measured. Perhaps as importantly, these effects also can’t be easily linked to a smoking gun, because their full impact may not be fully realized for generations.

Secondly, our perception of risk assessment of pesticides is constrained by the tools we have for measuring it. One of the more frustrating aspects of working with bees is that I can look at a hive (or a series of them; replication is important) and see that it’s stronger or more robust than another. However, when I employ a range of tools, I can’t always translate that pattern into a series of descriptive numbers or data representing what’s so clear in my observation. So, while it’s critical for science to dispassionately interpret data, it’s hard to deny what I’m seeing, even when the data doesn’t support it.

Scientists seldom approach the same problem again and again with different methods. This allows false conclusions to prevail, such as the claim that pesticides don’t hurt bees. This is when science hinders innovation instead of fueling it, and our current approach to generating research instills this style of science. Discrete projects produce incremental scientific advances rather than paradigm shifts generated by long-term research programs. Researchers become more and more distant from the field-based observations that used to fuel innovation and insightful hypotheses. Diminishing federal and state funds force scientists to rely on industry money to keep their laboratories paid. The sources of money strongly influence the type of science conducted.

Why is there so much evidence that Varroa mites contribute to hive losses? Because when science is for sale to the highest bidder, the effects of pesticides on honeybees can be diluted to obscurity.

Agriculture as the Solution

Bees flying around beehive.

As if the pesticide research I presented to the beekeepers was insufficient to upset my chain of command, I also decided to concurrently conduct research questioning whether industrialization challenged the resiliency of our food production system. Specifically, are we planting too much corn?

Monoculture-based crop production reduces the plant diversity that honeybees need to thrive. It also requires agrichemical inputs — pesticides and fertilizers — to keep degraded farmland productive, and these agrichemicals kill bees. Starving, poisoned bees get sick and have less resistance to parasites. This central problem drives all the reasons for bee decline outlined previously by those charged with solving the bee problem.

There’s no alternative: The solution to the bee collapse is to reform agriculture. Nothing less will work for long.

Fortunately, agriculture is starting to move toward a regenerative route with an ever-increasing gait. Regenerative agriculture improves soil health and promotes biodiversity (microbes, insects, plants, fungi, animals, and so on), while profitably growing nutritious food.

How do soil health and biodiversity improve bee health? Healthy soils make healthy plants. As tillage and monoculture-based agriculture have predominated, plant nutrition has fallen. Pesticides and higher atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have been implicated as drivers, but these are really inextricable symptoms of soil degradation and biodiversity loss.

Regardless of the reasons for declines in plant nutrient density, the solution is clear. Through agronomically proven practices, farmers can quickly restore their soil’s physical, chemical, and biological health. Practices such as no-till (or substantially reduced tillage), diversifying crop rotations, and livestock-crop integration are all options for farmers who want improved soil health.

But plant diversity is also important, and fostering plant diversity on and around farms is essential to making bees healthy again. The diversity of nearly every group of organisms scales with plant diversity in a habitat. If you want a populated habitat, you need plants. The pollen and nectar of different plant species contain the micronutrients and microbial communities that honeybees need to be successful, so getting as many plant species as close to hives as possible will give them a leg up.

Although this would solve many problems our planet currently faces, agriculture is a big ship. Finding solutions that are natural and inexpensive will be important to stemming hive losses until we can right the ship of food production toward ecologically intensive systems.

A Case of Macro Evolution

Evolution happens in fits and spurts. Often, small incremental steps lead species to diversify and adapt to their local conditions over millennia. But sometimes, something catastrophic happens — a meteorite hitting the planet, for example — that changes biological communities and culture in a big way very quickly.

Today, agriculture has acted like a meteorite hitting the Earth, and humans are selecting for species that can survive in an agrichemical-laden, highly simplified landscape. Many insect species have become casualties of our decisions, and we’re reshaping biological communities on a rapid time scale the planet has never experienced before. Honeybees are becoming one such casualty.

Also quickly shaping the culture of farming are the effects of agricultural industrialization on the natural resource base that farming depends on. When I present on the benefits of regenerative agriculture to farming audiences, I’m often asked, “What’s it going to cost me to change my operation?” My response is always the same: “Wrong question. What’s it going to cost you not to change?” Continuing on our current path will cost us our farms. It’ll cost us our grandchildren. What else are we willing to lose by staying on our present course?

Farmers are quickly realizing that the Green Revolution’s promises were short-lived, and are starting to appreciate the importance of soil health to their long-term resilience. Growing support is coming from unlikely sources to support farmers who are ready to make changes to their operations. Those farmers unwilling to change won’t be around much longer.

When Losses Turn

I had a horrible driving record when I was younger, because I wasn’t defensive enough, and other people kept running into me. When I protested that I didn’t need to change my driving because the accidents weren’t my fault, my dad explained to me, “The accidents aren’t your fault. But sometimes you can be 100 percent right, and still lose, because not everyone follows the same rules.” In the game of pesticides and industrialized agriculture, plenty of people aren’t following the right rules, and the long-term implications of their greed can be hard to see.

By presenting the truth on pesticides in San Antonio in 2014, and researching bee declines and regenerative agriculture, I think I did the right thing. But as a result, I lost most of the outward face of my identity. And that loss helped me figure out who I am.

An increasing amount of harassment and scientific suppression followed my presentation at the San Antonio meeting. It culminated in a whistleblower case that received enough media attention to cure me of ever craving stardom. I quit my position as one of the leading scientists in the USDA soon afterward.

The loss of my career at the USDA was just the beginning. The stress cost me my family as I’d known it. When I left “the matrix” of academic science, I also lost my peer group. I interact less now with fellow scientists and more with farmers and beekeepers, and these relationships bulldoze me out of my comfort zone every day.

There are many martyrs when a paradigm change is needed, and a lot of good people get hurt when someone stands up for what they think is right. They need to know that when it’s dark, it’ll eventually be OK.

Today, I have a much firmer grasp of what’s important now than I did during the height of my USDA career. I’ve found new perspectives on science, food production, and happiness that I never would’ve attained if I’d stayed in the matrix. And right now, bees really need these new perspectives.

I left the USDA and started a nonprofit research facility and demonstration farm in regenerative agriculture. My hope is for this to become a national network of centers for excellence in regenerative agriculture: no-strings-attached research that works in the best interest of farmers and beekeepers. From these humble roots, I hope we can conceive a revolution in both science and agriculture.

We haven’t solved the bee die-offs yet, but my team and I work hard on this every single day. I’ve traded a life of exclusively hard science for something much needed today, and that’s tremendous support from beekeepers and farmers who are trying to make the world better for future generations.

Dr. Jonathan Lundgren is the director of Ecdysis Foundation and the Blue Dasher Farm initiative. He uses science, education, and demonstration to help shift agriculture toward regenerative systems.


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