The Coming Beepocalypse

[I am doing a guest gig at Scientopia this week, and will be re-publishing posts I write for them here as well]

Right now, even people who aren’t bug dorks like me are really interested in bees.  This is a mixed blessing for an entomologist.

The Good:

As the American population becomes more distant from their food production (only 1% of the population works on farms), a bee crisis reminds everyone that a significant part of their diet depends on these little Angels of Agriculture.  We rely on bees to serve as pollen couriers for fruits, vegetables, and animal food crops. The value of pollination services is estimated between 30 and 15 Billion dollars per year in the US.

It’s good to remind people that their food depends on these little animals, and to generate some positive buzz about bees and agriculture. People are interested in planting native plants, and creating habitat for bees and other pollinating insects. Win!

The Bad:

Most Americans, and lots of the media, don’t seem to realize that “The Bees” are actually thousands of different species, with very different habitat needs and life histories.  Honeybees are domesticated animals. Like cows and chickens, they came to America with Europeans as introduced species in the 1600’s. They rapidly displaced native bee species, and habitat loss due to agriculture and urbanization further weakened our native pollinators.

its complicated

Honeybees live in artificial hives we build for them, and work to pollinate crops that grow in huge monocultures of single plant species. It is the honeybees that are dying from CCD, or Colony Collapse Disorder.  Or, maybe not.  It’s complex.

There are also declines in native solitary bee populations, in wild bumble bees, and in bumble bees that are reared commercially like honeybees.  Confused yet?  The press certainly is. Sometimes they can’t even figure out what insects are actually bees, much less what is killing them.

Cage in a cage

Because the media is Beedazzled, bee stories are covered heavily.  This results in some not-good science getting a LOT of exposure that it would not otherwise. Papers that would have quietly been published in an obscure periodical, and perhaps used as a “don’t do this” example in Journal Club, are suddenly big news. Press releases about grant funding to study a bee issue are presented with the same weight as  finished research.  Mainstream media seems to need to create a false sense of urgency about the stories. OMG NOT THE BEEZ!!! (obligatory photo of Nicholas Cage inserted here).

The Ugly:

A whole bunch of conspiracy theories about bees and what’s killing them have surfaced:
GMO Plants.
Cell phones.
Sun Spots.
Power lines and electromagnetic smog.
Rapture. (No, seriously. The bees are being raptured. Via a psychic they issued a “so long and thanks for all the pollen” statement, and revealed they were going to a higher astral plane.)

Claims of catastrophic consequences (“OMG All humans will die without bees!!1!”) and complex, murky science make space for some pretty wild claims.  A whole mythology of what Einstein might have said about bees has sprung up.   Monsanto bought a bee genomics company and it’s part of theirgrand plan to poison us all.  At this point, the only claim I haven’t seen yet is that very, very small black helicopters are abducting the bees.

 So what the F is up with the bees, anyway?

As you can see, there are a lot of different things going on with honeybee disappearance and loss of native species.  It doesn’t help that the honeybee problem is usually framed as a cause/effect relationship between bee declines and some toxic thing. Our modern news cycle isn’t really built to deal with nuance and complexity.

This “toxic thing” narrative results in some stories being given far more weight than others.  For some reason, a lot of people really want to believe cell phones and GMO crops kill bees, even when there is no evidence for it.  Some of the evidence that does exist is discounted, as is the “expert” status of a lot of entomologists.  The story has been shaped as much by what people already think about “those corporate bastards” than actual bees.

This has been a bit of an existential crisis for me, since while I know from my work in science education that just telling people facts won’t change their minds…I still do it. It’s the default position for an academic.

Commenter: Cell phones are killing bees!
Me: Well, actually, not so much [facts]
Commenter: Well what about this story?
Me: [more facts]
Commenter: You are a tool of the industrio-telecommunications complex.

I occasionally find myself in the problematic position of not wanting entomology to be covered widely as news because people aren’t listening or thinking carefully. (Which, frankly, could cover a lot of the daily news cycle, not just stories about insects.)

This is all a long way of saying that “The Bee Problem” is a really complex issue, involving many species, and the research isn’t finished.  It’s a biological system with thousands of moving and living parts.

When trying to explain this, I find myself returning to Carl Zimmer’s excellent New York Times summary of recent research on bees and pesticides:  Bees’ decline linked to pesticides.  Carl (I shook his hand once, so I can call him Carl, right?) does a great job of showing how the scientific community is still resolving how all this research adds up.  In a post on his blog providing supplimental information to the NYTimes story above, Carl discusses the difficulty of making sense of all this information:

“I found this story to be especially challenging to sum up in a single nut graph. To begin with, these experiments came after many years of previous experiments and surveys, which often provide conflicting pictures of what’s going on…. The experiments themselves were not–could not–be perfect replicas of reality, and so I needed to talk to other scientists about how narrow that margin was. As they should, the scientists probed deep, pointing out flaws and ambiguity–in many cases even as they praised the research.
At the same time, these two papers 
did not appear in a vacuum. Other scientists have recently published studies (or have papers in review at other journals) that offer clues of their own to other factors that may be at work. And, biology being the godawful mess that it is, it seems that these factors work together, rather than in isolation.”

Exactly! It’s a body of research, not hundreds of isolated individual papers.  If Carl Zimmer–an exceptional science journalist with access to the actual scientists that are doing the research–struggles trying to assemble a coherent picture of the information, I KNOW that the rest of us regular schmoes are too.

What I hope to do in my time at the Guest Blogge is cover some of the research that I think is important to understanding bees and the ecosystem services they provide, within the context of a field of rapidly evolving research.

2 thoughts on “The Coming Beepocalypse

  1. Well said, Bug Girl. I fear that humans in general don’t do nuance well,” as you put it. We seem almost genetically compelled to look for the quick (frequently wrong) answers to complex problems.

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