Friendly Fire

November 3, 2021

Dr. Jonathan Lundgren, PhD

Executive Director, Ecdysis Foundation

Owner, Blue Dasher Farm

When bees fight, it isn’t a pretty picture. A ball of bees, biting and stinging each other. Wings and legs are amputated. You can feel the tension in the combat, and the unheard screams. Until one or the other is dead. The loser seldom escapes.

I have been hearing with increasing frequency that honey bees are contributing to the decline in native bee populations. I had one colleague explain to me at the Entomological Society of America Meeting that honey bees were the “bad bees”, and natives were the “good bees”.

Let’s get something out of the way. Honey bees eat the same thing as many native bees. They also share the same diseases and plagues. Therefore, these two groups of insects compete with each other. Probably in ways that we don’t even understand. Is this competition what is killing native bees?

If the goal is to preserve and promote native pollinators, perhaps a good idea would be to get to the root of the problem here. What would happen to native bees if we eliminated all of the honey bees from North America?

We cannot truly know the answer to this question, but I think that the evidence supports the notion that if honey bees weren’t in the picture, that native bees…well, the native bees would probably be in exactly the same state as they are right now. Maybe even worse.

A growing graveyard for the many-legged. Native bees are insects, and the planet is losing all insects at an alarming rate. At the current extinction rates, most life on Earth will be gone in around 60 years; about the same time that most of the planet’s topsoil will be gone. And this species loss isn’t because of the honey bees.

Our food system is at the crux of this problem. It can be the source of species loss, or the solution to species loss. Food production is a destructive process. At its least, agriculture replaces life from a habitat with life that we choose. This can be done well. Or this can be done poorly. Right now, it is often done poorly.

Industrialized agriculture removes plant diversity from the landscape at unprecedented scales. It replaces it with a monoculture of a single crop or livestock species. The natural resource base is destroyed, along with all the ecosystem functions that drove the productivity of this habitat. Agrichemicals are then used to restore some of this habitat’s productivity. But these chemicals remove additional life from the farm, forcing the need for additional reliance on agrichemicals. And so cranks the treadmill.

This treadmill of industrialized agriculture functions to benefit and perpetuate only itself; not the farmers, not the agricultural communities, not animal or human wellbeing, but the companies that stand to profit from the ever-increasing use of inputs to sustain it. Farmers are ensnared. The initial products of industrial agriculture are mostly grain that humans don’t eat, and beef. A long-term product of industrial agriculture is carbon emissions, and removing the ability of the biological community to sequester carbon. Another product is desertification of habitats. Another product is pollution of water and land. Another product is reduced nutrient density of foods and immunocompromised species, including humans. Another product is species loss.

The product of industrialized agriculture is vastly fewer insects. Fewer native bees. And fewer honey bees.

As landscapes have changed, we are living through a massive evolutionary experiment, selecting for a very small sliver of species that can survive within a depauperated, toxic landscape.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Innovation comes from the fringe. And the planet desperately needs innovation right now. On the outskirts of agriculture, there are farms that are changing things. Driving through eastern South Dakota this fall, there is less tillage than there was even five years ago. There are green cover crops instead of broken, black dirt. These species of flowering plants and grasses that are never harvested; they are planted to feed the life in the soil. There are cattle grazing these plants, cycling nutrients and crushing crop pests under foot. In rangelands, animals are kept in smaller pastures and moved frequently. Then the pasture is allowed to rest. The plant community thrives.

The practices on regenerative farms are creeping onto a wider swath of the farming community. And where plants proliferate, life swells. All groups of microbes, fungi, and animals diversify according to the number of plant species and their biomass in a habitat. Where plants proliferate, bees thrive.

The way to save native pollinators is to adopt approaches that can save all insects. Including honey bees.

The best that we can do is minimize the impact that our food system has on the natural resources of this planet. One of the strongest tools for reversing planetary scale problems is our food system. 40% of the land surface of the planet is managed by farmers. This managed land is the best shot we have for reversing species declines. And farmers all over the planet are developing regenerative agriculture. They are a minority, but won’t be for long.

We are actively studying how bees respond to regenerative orchards, rangelands, and cropland around North America. The results are that regenerative agriculture looks like it is the best shot we have at reversing the declines in insects and bees, regardless of their shape, size and color.

I think it might be a good idea to redirect the dialogue on the native bee/honey bee topic a little bit.

Bee enthusiasts and bee keepers are allies, and we need to be acting as such. Let’s focus on real and practical solutions that can help everyone, rather than bickering which species get to stay on an ever shrinking life boat. Given the circumstances, I am not sure we have the luxury of deciding which bees are “good” and which ones are “bad”.

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