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Turns Out Bees Are Like Us: Eating Poorly, Not Sleeping Well And Overworked05:24

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It's not news that honey bees are dying off. In the last year, beekeepers have lost an estimated 42 percent of their colonies; in each of the prior five years they lost between 29 and 46 percent.

Though there are numerous theories on what's going on with our pollinators, writer David Wallace-Wells points to some of the unbelievable stresses honey bees are facing, as they are carted on flat-bed trucks around the country, on tours that would leave rock bands dizzy. The bees, for example, end up eating the same single food for more than a month at a time (as unhealthy for bees as it would be for humans), and are exposed not only to pesticides, but also chemicals that are thought to protect the bees against the varroa mite (resulting in a kind of bee chemotherapy). The result is a seriously weakened bee population.

Wallace-Wells writes about the crisis in New York Magazine and joins Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson to discuss the problems and possible solutions.

Interview Highlights: David Wallace-Wells

On why honeybees are dying

“It’s part this bug called Varroa, which infects colonies. It’s part this new class of pesticides. In particular, it’s called neonicotinoids. They basically pump nicotine on the plants and the bees eat that, and that is really bad for them. And then this problem with diet which is connected to this much bigger issue which is that honeybees are really part of this industrial farming apparatus. They're trucked around the country from farm to farm to pollinate plants. They don't really live in the wild at all. So when they get to these massive industrial farms it's like one crop for miles and miles and the bees only eat that one crop for the month they're on that farm and that is totally unnatural for them. The beekeepers can sometimes supplement that diet a little bit but it’s really kind of devastating. Just imagine only eating bananas for a month or only oatmeal for a month. And the combination of these things is actually worse than each of them taken individually. The bees are responding to these factors sort of like we respond to stress...And the result is mass mass death. ”

On industrial farming and the disappearance of wild honeybees

“There aren’t really any wild honeybees in America. There are 4,000 bee species in the country but the only species anybody talks about are honeybees and 95 percent of them are in what is called managed colonies— which is the hives are manmade, they live mostly on trucks traveling around the country from farm to farm. They’re not natural creatures and they’re not living in the natural world. It’s kind of interesting that bees have become this symbol of environmental catastrophe. These mass deaths have gotten everybody really freaked out over the last decade, when in fact they’re only here become our industrial farming apparatus needs them. They wouldn't be here otherwise. And the living conditions are completely unnatural. They don’t reflect any environmental change, they just reflect agribusiness.”

“It’s kind of interesting that bees have become this symbol of environmental catastrophe...They don’t reflect any environmental change, they just reflect agribusiness.”

David Wallace-Wells

On consumers' role in honeybees' survival

“Over the last few decades farming has become more and more corporatized and as I was saying before, the farms that result are just these massive corporate structures that are huge and they’re not really run by farmers they’re run by business men. And the pesticides allow those crops to grow much more abundantly than they would otherwise, and in a sort of profit obsessed sector of the farming industry that’s what the companies want. The truth is that the money they make from it supports not just the bees we’re talking about, but it allows the beekeepers to survive and the bee colonies to survive despite these mass deaths.

So even though we’ve had 40 percent of all bee colonies dying every year for the last decade, the total population of bees is actually at an all time high, it’s just that the American consumer is willing to pay a couple extra cents for their bananas or for their pumpkins and eventually that gets passed along the beekeepers who rebreed every off season and are able to completely stabilize their populations. So even though we’re so nervous about the fate of bees, the truth is we paid for them to survive and they’re not in any danger at all. The etymologist I talked to said, maybe the beekeeper is in danger, but the bees themselves are going to survive.”


This segment aired on August 11, 2015.

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