This article is from the In-Depth Report The Food Issue: The Science of Feast, Fuel and Farm

Return of the Natives: How Wild Bees Will Save Our Agricultural System

Reviving native bee species could save honeybees--and our agricultural system--from collapse

There are other things we can control: namely, the environmental factors that govern the bees' life cycle. As it turns out, we have engineered an environment that, in some ways, could not be worse for the bees. “Our monoculture system,” Kremen says, “is creating a huge demand for an army of pollinators, and there's virtually no way to ensure that except for bringing in honeybees. If they're sick and having problems, what are we going to do?”

Ghost Ships
What we know as the honeybee is more accurately called the European honeybee (Apis mellifera), which first arrived with early colonists on ships from England sometime around 1620. From the beginning, various pests and pathogens plagued hives, and beekeeping was a battle to stay a step or two ahead of the grim reaper's scythe. Wax moths, American foulbrood, drought, nosema disease: these are just a few of the things that have doomed both hives and beekeepers through the centuries.

In the fall of 2006 a now legendary beekeeper named Dave Hackenberg discovered that 360 out of his 400 hives in Florida were lifeless—no bees in sight. “They waited, fully stocked with pollen, honey, and larvae—like ghost ships—for their inhabitants to return,” Nordhaus wrote. “But the bees never came back.”

By the following winter some beekeepers had lost 90 percent of their hives; across the country a third of honeybee hives collapsed, many in this same mysterious way. Researchers named such disappearances “colony collapse disorder,” although the term quickly became a metonym for all the maladies afflicting honeybees.

Scientists have failed to find a single culprit that is primarily responsible for CCD. A flurry of recent studies implicates neonicotinoids, or neonics, a widely used class of pesticides, but they probably do not deserve all the blame. The most likely scenario is that neonics are an indirect cause of bee declines, leaving colonies far more susceptible to pathogens such as the parasitic fungus that causes nosema disease and varroa mites—rust-colored parasites that suck out bees' vital fluids and spread crippling viral diseases. (In Australia, where neonics are heavily used but there are no varroa mites, honeybee colonies remain healthy.) Other contributing factors include fungicides, drought and an inadequately diverse diet.

The meta problem may be that our agricultural system is simultaneously dependent on honeybees and contributing to their demise. Relying on a single bee species to pollinate nearly 100 different crops is untenable. Every year beekeepers truck their hives around the country in the back of tractor-trailers, following the flowering of various crops: almonds to cherries to apples, and so on. Often, when no crops are in bloom, the bees do not have a lot to eat. Beekeepers supplement their diet with corn syrup or sugar water, which do not have nearly the nutritional value that natural pollen and nectar do. On top of that, during huge crop pollination events such as the almond bloom, around 1.5 million hives from around the country converge in California, creating near-perfect conditions for transmitting diseases. Imagine a giant gathering of kindergartners from every region of the nation, all intermingling their germs.

Flower Power
On a sunny day in early April, not long after the almond bloom has faded, I set out to see what Williams, now at U.C. Davis, and Kremen are up to. Next to a field of walnut trees near the university, a row of tall shrubs planted by the researchers stretches for several hundred yards: western redbud, coffeeberry, gum plant, sage, coyote brush. The bushes are in varying stages of bloom, and tiny, black bees fly from flower to flower. They are mason bees, known for building mud apartments inside wood dwellings.

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