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Stress At Work Is What’s Killing The Honeybees

You think your job is intense? Try being a worker bee in today’s industrialized agriculture system.

Stress At Work Is What’s Killing The Honeybees
[Top Photo: hraska via Shutterstock]

When the honeybee apocalypse started making headlines almost a decade ago, there were wild speculations about the cause: Wireless internet? GMO crops? Climate change?

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Now the answer is clearer. Bees are mostly dying because of pesticides and a certain pesticide-resistant mite that infects them with disease. But it isn’t either factor on its own making things so bad. Instead, it’s the way that each makes the other worse. Other problems, like a bad diet forced on bees by industrial agriculture, add to the pressures. The underlying issue, as a fascinating article in New York Magazine explains, is stress.

Flickr user John Lodder

Work stress, no less:

Don’t laugh, but looked at one way, this is essentially a case of on-the-job stress. That’s because the bees in question are worker bees, the tiniest employees of our agricultural-industrial complex. More than our doubles, bees are our slaves. Migrant workers, anyway.

Instead of the bucolic existence one might imagine, lazily flying from flower to flower, honeybees spend their short lives trucking around the country from one massive industrial farm to the next, piled with 15 million fellow bees in the back of a semi. Since the farms tend to be monocultures, they’ll spend weeks at a time feeding only on a single type of flower–not the healthiest lifestyle, and one of the reasons that pesticides have even more of an impact.

As stresses mount on a colony, it starts sending out younger and younger bees, which only makes the problem worse:

Unfortunately, young bees are terrible at foraging, and the result is “disastrous,” Barron explains. “A beehive is a fortress and a phenomenally self-regulating and ordered society and is probably moving from a state of complete function and order to complete depopulation in a couple of weeks. Sometimes even faster. All of a sudden, the colony nose-dives and goes into a complete societal breakdown.” The super-organism has a panic attack. The bees freak the fuck out.

Last year, beekeepers lost 42% of their colonies; in some regions, losses were as high as 60%. It’s a situation with such obvious consequences–one in three mouthfuls of food wouldn’t exist without a bee’s help–that the White House has gotten involved with a new program that will help feed bees a better diet, among other things.

But much more is needed to solve the problem–especially a reduction in the use of pesticides, which have started harming bees in subtler ways than they once did (some earlier pesticides were much more direct killers, knocking out bees immediately; now the effects are still bad, but can be harder to trace). Certain chemicals that didn’t seem to harm bees in the past, like fungicides, have started to cause new problems, maybe because of the bees’ overall stress levels.

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Theresa Scarbrough via Shutterstock

“Now we’re finding out that things that weren’t considered to be toxic also seem to be problematic,” says Eric Mussen, apiculturist at the University of California-Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. “So my overly simplistic statement would be, try to not apply pesticides.”

If farmers still use pesticides, Mussen argues that in an ideal world they wouldn’t do it at times that bees are likely to be feeding on the flowers. Of course, that’s easier said than done, and in a place like California, the drought is making things harder. “Now with no water, the growers are trying to get everything they can off of those fields to make a little money,” he says. “In those circumstances, if they believe it’s a good idea to put these materials on, they’re probably going to put them on.”

“I don’t know how to stop that,” he adds. “But you would just think that maybe getting the growers in the room with the beekeepers–and having them talk instead of throwing spears at each other–they might be able to modify what they’re doing so that we could reduce this exposure to this chemistry.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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