United States, Vermont, 1962, Springtime. Walking through the forests, all seemed to be in order, except for one startling peculiarity: the air was still. No birds flew amongst the trees and without them, their songs were gone as well. This unnerving detail was not localised to Vermont. Birds were vanishing from ecosystems all across North America, and the public didn’t seem to notice. Except for a few ornithologists.
The deafening silence of birds
One of them was Rachel Carlson, and she was not afraid to raise her voice. Her groundbreaking 1962 book, The Silent Spring, pushed the issue to the front of the public arena. Carlson, alongside many other courageous environmentalists, tied the epidemic to American chemical companies’ reckless promotion of DDT, an effective but lethal pesticide (an effective pesticide IS a lethal pesticide by definition). Despite fierce opposition from these companies, Carlson’s work helped reverse national pesticide policies, restore bird populations, and build public awareness of the dangers that poor practices pose to the natural world.
It has now been 55 years since the Silent Spring, and a new, eerily similar epidemic seems to be upon us. This time, though, the victims are bees, and the repercussions will be, if they are not already, worldwide if we do not heed the lessons of the past.
Bad Weather for Beekeepers
Bee populations across the planet have been disappearing at a staggering clip for nearly 15 years now. According to a report from Yale University, “beekeepers, primarily in the United States and Europe, have been reporting annual hive losses of 30% or higher.” More than 700 bee species are headed toward extinction in North America alone, and many others are at the threshold of extinction.
The implications of a major bee downfall would spread like a poison to every corner of society. Bees are responsible for far more than just honey production. Cross-pollination accounts for one-third of the world’s crop growth, and 90% of wild plants. Without bees, we would have to kiss lots of foods goodbye like oranges, almonds, apples, avocados, and – brace yourself – wine (albeit indirectly).
To Kill a Mocking Bee
But what’s causing this phenomenon? Like the Silent Spring, toxic pesticides, known as Neonicotinoids, have played a critical role in decimating bee populations. Melittologists are adamant that global warming also shoulders a significant portion of the blame.
In 2015 the Science journal published a report on the matter; since the onset of the 1970’s, bumblebees have lost almost 200 miles off the southern end of their wild range in both Europe and the U.S. And as the earth continues to warm, (today, on average, the United States is nearly 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it was 100 years ago), the trends in habitat loss will only worsen.
The problem has such devastating economic and environmental implications that major private businesses oh-so dependent on the work of bees have begun to get involved. Cheerios, for example, kicked off a campaign called #BringBacktheBees to raise money for 100 million free packets of wildflower seeds. It was a beautiful reminder that businesses and environmentalism do not have to be mortal enemies.
Business Needs Bees. Bees Need Business
As a symbol, Cheerios removed the beloved “Buzz the Bee” from the box of Honey Nut Cheerios, and gave this ominous warning to families at breakfast:
“Buzz is missing because there’s something serious going on with the world’s bees. Bee populations everywhere have been declining at an alarming rate, and that includes honeybees like Buzz.”
Walmart is taking action, too, and has already filed patents on autonomous mechanical bee designs intended to help in the fight for pollination, a stark parallel with the Black Mirror series. Unfortunately, we must be wary of this course. The unfortunate story of artificial salmon breeds released in the North American river systems shows that trying to supplant nature with human creations can have disastrous effects.
The way forward with plan A is clear: We must do everything in our power to push for responsible agricultural practices, rally against global warming, and raise awareness for this beautiful, vital creature. What is bad for bees is bad for humans. It’s not much more complicated than that. Is now a good time to protect our most valuable partner?
Questions: Are bees disappearing? Why are bee populations important? Why are bee populations declining? What are we doing to save bees?