How a life without bees would look like — and why protecting bees is important

We could start off with a quote from Albert Einstein which he probably never said. But nevertheless: Bees are one of the most important animals on this earth. And yes: Far ahead of our human population!

In the 2000s there was a nightmare-ish, massive dying of bee colonies, called “Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD) that once again showed us how important those little buzzers are. In some areas, up to 80 % of the bees were attacked by — yes, by what?

Today there is a bit more certainty about what caused (and causes today) massive death of bumblebees:

  • The massive spray of pesticides and herbicides.
  • The parasitic varroa mites that weakens colonies.
  • Malnutrition and unbalanced nutrition trough increased number of monocultures …
  • … that is also connected to massive habitat-losses for wild bees.
  • Selective commercial breeding and lost genetic diversity in industrial apiculture.

Until today it is not quite sure, which one of the diverse threats really killed the bees. But one thing is true: We need to excessively protect these little creatures (among many others)!

A third of all crops in the U. S., including broccoli, blueberries, cherries, apples, melons and lettuce are pollinated by bees. This results in a great need for protection of this and other pollinators to secure our supply of food.

Plants need pollination

This point might be quite obvious: Nearly 70–75 % of Plants need at least partial pollination by insects or other animals. Other animals include for example bats, birds, wasps or butterflies. And yet some of us are rarely conscious that our daily food is deeply connected to these pollinators.

“Without pollinators, many of us would no longer be able to enjoy coffee, chocolate and apples, among many other foods that are part of our daily lives,” Simon Potts, Professor of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, School of Agriculture, Policy and Development, University of Reading, United Kingdom.

Since the beginning of the 20th century the so called “migratory beekeeping” became a crucial element of industrialized agriculture. Very mind blowing examples for this kind of pollination are the almond farms from Sacramento to Los Angeles which expand over around 800,000 acres: Honeybees (note: commercial bred bees) are ‘rented’ for pollination to produce honey and transform the beautiful blossoms of thousands of almond trees into delicious seeds.

To produce large numbers of almonds the need for seemed to pesticides grew, too. While wild bees vanished for various reasons, they also weren’t able to fulfill enough pollination work for the huge almond farms in the south. This finally ended in massive use of migratory beekeeping.

Pollinators need protection

As processes and the demand for the oval nut-like seeds increased, the bee rental nearly exploded. Today, around 31 million bees are working on the almond farms in California’s Central Valley.

Obviously, we love delicious almond milk or cheese made of it — but this kind of pollination is a capitalist business — and our bees are involved in it. And they’re getting sick of it: Large numbers of bee colonies died from pesticides, weakened swarms (e. g. varroa mites) and malnutrition (because there was only one kind of food provided to them: almond blossoms).

“I was thinking about pesticides and realized that, although people have looked at the concentrations that kill pest and non-pest species, so-called sub-lethal doses may affect how bees behave.” Dr. Chris Connolly from the University of Dundee

Of various kinds of threats to honeybees, some are connected: The parasitic varroa mites are weakening the bee colonies. This (and other diseases) can spread rapidly within the bee hives. In order to kill the parasites, farmers use miticides/pesticides that irritate the bees even more — even if the bees are not directly sprayed with pesticides, the residues remain on the pollens that the animals collect.

Professionalized bee keeping might be a factor for massive spreading of diseases, too. Most of the 12,029 bee keepers use around 250 colonies. In these a parasite or other weakening factors could impact the bees massively.

Besides the “hive rental”, the secondary profit is generated by selling honey: 70 tons of honey are produced in the U. S. alone. But overwhelmingly more than 150 tons are consumed per year.

“Wild pollinators in certain regions, especially bees and butterflies, are being threatened by a variety of factors,” said IPBES Vice-Chair, Sir Robert Watson. “Their decline is primarily due to changes in land use, intensive agricultural practices and pesticide use, alien invasive species, diseases and pests, and climate change.”

The large scale of using honey bees for industrial pollination may be a part of the massive dying of bees. And today we can clearly see how this affects or will affect our daily life in the future: More than 40 % of (invertebrate) pollinator species are threatened with extinction globally. This could massively decrease the billions of annual value that is directly affected by pollinators.

Humankind has a nearly perfidious way to make use of the environment: Trees are cut down to plant soy that we can feed to animals to slaughter for some protein — mostly because it tastes “that good”.

But how to protect?

Well, the world is terrible and men made it even more unpleasant in the past decades, to hang around here. But hopefully this is not the end of the story!

Scientists are working together to educate farmers, politicians and other groups involved in the agriculture business. Yet most efforts include great steps away from the modern farming — which really isn’t surprising nowadays: As factory farms and the extensive use of monocultures have to end, the massive abuse of honey should end, too.

And this is not only what I think, it’s consistent with most findings in the last 10 years support. The “Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services” (IPBS) stated in 2016 that indigenous and local knowledge could help to overcome most of the problems pollinators face today.

Here some advices from the IPBS:

  • It’s hugely effective to create greater diversity of pollinator habitats in agricultural and urban landscapes. This includes e. g. crop rotation, coproduction and more “slow-food”-style production.
  • “Education and exchange of knowledge among farmers, scientists, industry, communities, and the general public”
  • Decrease usage of pesticides in finding alternative forms of pest control
  • “A high diversity of wild pollinators contributes to increased stability in pollination, even when managed bees are present in high numbers.”

These are just some answers. The key factor might be: The more we respect nature and its pollinators like bees and other insects — the more likely they will feel welcome.

Sadly, this doesn’t mean we could abolish bee keeping completely (note: I personally would like a world without ‘farmed’ animals). By now we are too dedicated to honey bees and migratory bee keeping: 1,600 of the U. S.’s beekeepers are reliant on California’s almond orchards.

But we can optimize the landscape once and for all: More diversity!

Around 4,000 bee species are native to the U.S. — but only nonnative, domesticated honeybees are used in the agriculture sector. Also it’s recommended by many scientists that more biodiversity is healthy for every system. This includes plants, too — which would end up including crop rotation or e. g. permaculture-cultivation (“one plant helps the other”).

Another point to make is that we don’t need bee’s honey — they need it much more to stay well fed through hard times (e. g. when colonies are exhausted due to parasites or pesticides) and to raise their progeny. The idea of using or eating honey to save bees is really no option: In conventional beekeeping we do more harm than we could eventually help bees.

From another view it is also highly ineffective to use honey as nutrition for humans: For around one pound (454 g) of honey, a hive has to visit around two million blossoms and travel 50,000 miles (80,000 km). So why don’t we just let the hives keep their honey?

How would a life without bees look like?

As you may know after reading all of this: I am not a scientist or biologist — I am a designer.

My purpose with this text is to make sure that you can get a glimpse of what bees (and other pollinators) are worth and furthermore, what a life without bees would mean to us all.

Since some years I am researching and commenting on various animal rights topics and try to be as active in these issues as I can. But nothing hit me like the not respected enough little creature we call bee. An insect that is so important to our well-being and future of our planet — and yet is hugely disrespected by most people.

So I came up with the idea of a shortfilm named “Colony Collapse Disorder — a life without bees” and produced it while I was at the University for Applied Sciences in Trier, Germany.

The 10-minute film offers a small glimpse of what could happen if the “vanishing of the bees” goes on for some years. And also a story about a man that searches for an technical replacement for these little individuals that help us so much. But in the end he … well — I won’t spoil it right here.

For me it was the start of a journey which I call “respecting animals even more”. Maybe we all should go on this journey …