2016 PlushBeds Green Scholarship recipient
How to Solve the Problem of Our Disappearing Honey Bees
I recently spent four weeks working as a canvasser for a non-profit environmental organization. For several hours each day, I would stand on the streets of New York City and encourage pedestrians to help us save the bees! With my tablet in hand and a prepared 60-second rap ready to flow off my tongue, I convinced many New Yorkers that they could help bring about great change. I'd say, "We need to get the Environmental Protection Agency to ban the use of bee-killing pesticides once and for all." I'd say this with a sense of urgency because "We do not know how progressive the EPA is going to be after the November election." My endearing persona and impassioned speech elicited many donations and even more petition signatures.
These bee-killing pesticides that this organization is working to ban are called neonicotinoids. They are pesticides that are applied to seeds or soil rather than directly to plants. This allows for the pesticides' properties to remain intact for a much longer time than old school pesticides. Bees, specifically the honey bees who are an integral part of our food supply, come into contact with this pesticide via dust, water, dew droplets, or soil. Pollinators return to their hives later on with now-toxic pollen and nectar. The neonicotinoids do not kill the bees right away. They affect every part of the bee's system first. They impair their navigational abilities, digestive systems, and neurological functions. In the United States alone, neonicotinoids are used on over 150 million acres (usually corn, canola, or soybean farms).
Before addressing how to halt the endangerment of bees, it is imperative for those who depend on bees (i.e., everyone) to understand the underlying economic structure that allows for the eradication of pollinators. There are two types of pesticides: residual (systemic) and non- residual (contact). The former refers to chemicals that have long-term effectiveness. The latter refers to chemicals that must come into direct contact with insects in order for them to work. One may infer that residual pesticides are more economical given their long-lasting properties. In the past few years, Imidacloprid (which is Bayer CropScience's brand of neonicotinoids) has become the most widely-used pesticide in the United States. The popularity of neonicotinoids makes sense, though. It does the trick. It kills unwanted insects while avoiding direct application to crops and flowers. Neonicotinoids' popularity stops making sense, however, when it becomes clear how toxic they are to honey bees. You can find the root word "nicotine" in neonicotinoid. It truly does not make sense that farmers invest in chemicals that have been proven to have sub- lethal (and eventually lethal) effects on the bees that pollinate their crops.
I believe that the EPA will ban neonicotinoids sooner or later. And when this day comes, I will know that I have done my part. I will know that I helped to save the bees. However, I know with absolute certainty that my four weeks as a canvasser did practically nothing in preventing the possible future endangerment of bees.
During my interactions, I learned how popular urban beekeeping had recently become. I was fascinated by those who had taken up this unique pastime, but I still needed to elicit contributions. So I would say something along the lines of, "Yeah, beekeeping is such an amazing way to counteract the depletion of bee colonies. However, I see beekeeping as more akin to a band aid that covers the bullet hole, the bullet hole being the use of these neonicotinoids." But the longer I canvassed, the more I got it in my head that the neonicotinoids are the most basic detriment to bee colonies and, inevitably, to our food supply. It was branded in my mind that neonicotinoids (and the agrichemical companies that produce them) are the most major threat to our ecosystem and to our crops.
I no longer believe that the neonicotinoids are the cancer. They are merely a debilitating symptom.
Like I said, I believe that neonicotinoids will be banned. Big deal. So were DDTs. We have not even take a step in the right direction. Neonicotinoids are 5,000 times more dangerous than DDTs. In ten years, starry-eyed college students will still be standing on New York City sidewalks campaigning to ban the use of toxic chemicals. We're stuck in an incessant feedback loop.
The EPA can ban DDTs and neonicotinoids and every other imaginable pesticide from here to Sunday. But, these dangerous pesticides are going to keep showing up. The only permanent solution is to modify our dependence on industrialized agriculture. There is a new culture of urban and community farming that consumers should take advantage of.
Imagine a system of localized farming. At my own community garden in Hewlett, New York, I have seen twenty individual volunteers take home enough produce to feed each of their families for several meals. If we switch our dependence to this type of agriculture -- which seldom uses pesticides, much less neonicotinoids -- we would generate a tremendous impact on honey bee populations. Not only do honey bees thrive in environmentally-sound farms and gardens (especially when there are wildflowers planted next to crops) but dependence on local agriculture would inevitably lead to gigantic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Since the depletion of honey bee colonies is partly a consequence of anthropogenic climate change, the reason for a resurgence of honey bee colonies would be twofold.
I could write an anthology of essays explaining why local agriculture is superior to industrialized agriculture and should be the next step that the developed world takes. But when it comes to the bees, local agriculture is the best measure against colony depletion given its limited use of chemicals and its miniscule impact on the climate. Environmental activists would no longer have to waste much of their time and money fighting the agrichemical industry and the federal government's arguably lax restrictions.
It may be far-fetched to expect that the entire United States will abandon its reliance on industrialized agriculture. Americans are, unfortunately, infamous for their massive consumption of heavily processed foods. The crops harvested from urban farms and community gardens typically only end up in households, local restaurants, and sometimes even soup kitchens. An American economy without huge fields of corn, soy, and wheat stretching across Middle America is almost unrecognizable. The message we must send to the American public, however, is that the agronomic practices of these large farms is causing one of our largest environmental and public health crises.
As tough as introducing local agriculture may seem, we have witnessed Americans learn how to change their habits. According to the Center for Disease Control, adult cigarette use has been on a steady decline since the 1960s. In 1970, 37.4% of adults were cigarette smokers. That number dropped each year after that. In 2014, only 16.8% of adults were cigarette smokers. This drop occurred largely in part because of straightforward campaigns that had most Americans recognizing that the costs of cigarette smoking largely outweighed the benefits. We have much greater media capabilities in the Twenty-First Century. Environmental organizations would have an even easier time showing the general public that the costs of industrialized agriculture largely outweigh the benefits and that the benefits of local agriculture largely outweigh the costs.
While neonicotinoids are the main culprit in the depletion of bee colony depletion, banning them is not a permanent solution. The best way to ensure a future ensured by pollinators is to go back to the basics. Once Americans (and individuals across the globe, for that matter) understand that bees are as indispensable to them as oxygen or running water they will demand agriculture that is not reliant on harmful chemicals. They can do this by buying local produce (if they are financially able to do so) or encouraging local restaurants to only use locally-sourced ingredients. I think individuals across the political spectrum that it is preferable to have many small farms rather than a few very large ones. So long as these small farms do not end up relying on neonicotinoids and other harmful chemicals, bees will find sanctuary in these unadulterated plots of growth.