We Must Heal the Soil to Save the Bees

Updated: Apr 13

By: Dr. Jonathan Lundgren

September 4, 2019

A tragedy on six legs. In 2014, I was asked to present for the American Honey Producer’s meeting in San Antonio, TX. I explained to the beekeepers that if I presented the science I had produced on pesticides at a national meeting, it would be the end of my career as a USDA research scientist. Their response was, “Tell the truth, Jon. And the beekeepers will have your back.” Six years later, both of our statements have proven correct.

That was a time when nearly everyone cared about bees. Colony collapse was receiving international audience as the nation’s honey bee population plummeted year after year. National annual hive losses went from historic averages of 11% to more than 50%, and queen longevity had gone from 3 years to 6 months.

Working groups of various stakeholders were popping up everywhere, each with a formula for saving the bees. Nearly every land grant university was investing in a honey bee specialist that could take advantage of the research grant programs that were springing to life. The beekeepers could walk into Washington DC and have an instant meeting in the Secretary of Agriculture’s office or the Administrators of the EPA.

After a year or two, there was consensus as to why the bees were dying. The four main causes of bee decline were 1) a lack of flowers, 2) Varroa mite (a parasite that eats the fatty tissues of bees), 3) diseases like viruses, and sometimes 4) pesticides. I argued then and now that these were only symptoms of the problem.

Fast forward to today. Bees are occasionally in the news, and in general the public knows that the bees are dying. But much of the momentum behind saving the bees has been lost. Research and outreach projects advance our understanding of the bee collapse in incremental steps. Despite this, I think compelling arguments could be made that we are losing more hives than ever, and that bee keeping as an industry will likely be dead in a few years if something doesn’t change.

The reason we are on the edge of this cliff is that we didn’t understand the magnitude of what the bee collapse was really telling us about our planet. This was never a bee problem, but we approached as though it was. It was an agriculture problem. It was a biodiversity problem. And most importantly, the bee collapse was a soil problem.

Seeing is believing. In 2014, I presented science that showed that neonicotinoid seed treatments on soybeans were hurting farmers. Later, we conducted additional research on corn and sunflowers showing the same results. These insecticides didn’t control the key pests, and we were putting these chemicals into the environment for no reason. Indeed, neonics were reducing predators in soybeans that might eat things like soybean aphids. And in at least sunflowers, they were reducing pollinators too.

During this time, the responsible insecticide companies were aggressively trying to ensure that no one thought that pesticides, and neonicotinoids specifically, were causing the bee decline. Billions of dollars were at stake annually in convincing society that neonicotinoids were perfectly safe, and that farmers couldn’t survive without them. Following my presentation in San Antonio, presentations by insecticide companies and federal regulatory agencies explained the poorly defended benefits of neonicotinoids to farmers. At that point, my brain solidified this undeniable link between the regulators and the companies being regulated.

The beekeepers had approached me about their bees, and how pesticides were causing hive losses. Not contributing to hive losses; CAUSING them. Ever a skeptic, I read a few scientific studies on the topic, and explained to the beekeepers that the science was inconclusive as to whether the pesticides were killing the bees. An impassioned beekeeper exclaimed to me, “Come out to my bee yard during corn planting, and watch my bees dying in front of the hive. Then tell me that the pesticides on that corn seed aren’t killing my bees.”

Six years later, both of our statements have proven correct. My observation that the science was inconclusive was correct, but the observation that pesticides were killing the bees was also correct. That meant two things were likely true.

First is that good science was asking the wrong questions. After 20 years of researching the risks of pesticides and GM crops, I can tell you that pesticides affect organisms in unpredictable ways. As such, we don’t always know the right questions to ask when it comes to whether a chemical is “safe” to a non-target organism like the honey bee. A central challenge is that our regulatory framework is predicated on transparency and predictability; companies expect that if they present regimented experimental safety data on their product, then their product will be approved. Our regulatory system is really good at detecting adverse effects of a pesticide when it kills honey bees like a sledgehammer.

Generally, we now know that a lot of pesticides don’t kill bees like a sledgehammer. They affect things like genetics, and hormones, and microbial symbionts, or in ways we haven’t even thought of yet. These mechanisms don’t outright kill a non-target organism. These effects give them learning disabilities, and auto immune diseases, and affect reproductive capabilities that aren’t easily measured. Perhaps as importantly, these effects also aren’t easily linked to a smoking gun, as their full impact may not be fully realized for generations.

Another problem with the science of risk assessment of pesticides is that our perception of risk is constrained by the tools that we have for measuring it. One of the more frustrating aspects of working with bees is that I can look at a hive (or a series of them; replication is important) and see that it is stronger or more robust than an alternative one. But when I employ a range of tools, sometimes I can’t translate that gestalt into a series of descriptive numbers or data that represent what is so clear to my observation. So while it is critical for science to dispassionately interpret data, it is really hard to deny what I am seeing even when the data doesn’t support it. As scientists, we seldom reapproach the same problem again and again using different methods.

And so false conclusions can prevail. False conclusions like pesticides don’t hurt bees.

This is when science hinders innovation instead of fueling it, and our current approach to generating research instills this style of science. Discrete projects produce incremental scientific advances rather than paradigm shifts generated by long term research programs. Researchers become more and more distant from field-based observations that used to fuel innovation and insightful hypotheses. Diminishing federal and state funds force scientists to rely on industry money to keep their laboratories paid. The sources of money strongly influences the type of science that is conducted.

Why is there so much evidence that Varroa mite is contributing to hive losses? Because when science is for sale to the highest bidder, the effects of pesticides on honey bees can be diluted to obscurity.

Agriculture as the solution to the bee problem.

As if my pesticide research presented to the beekeepers were insufficient to upset my chain of command, I decided to concurrently conduct research that questioned whether industrialization was challenging the resiliency of our food production system. Specifically, are we planting too much corn?

Monoculture-based crop production reduces plant diversity that honey bees need to thrive. It also requires agrichemical inputs like pesticides and fertilizers to keep the degraded farmland productive, and these agrichemicals kill bees. Starving, poisoned bees get sick and have less resistance to parasites. This is the central problem that simultaneously drives all of the reasons for bee declines outlined previously by those charged with solving the bee problem.

There really is no alternative: the solution to the bee collapse is to reform agriculture. Nothing less will work for long.

Fortunately, agriculture is starting to change toward a regenerative route with an ever-increasing gait. Regenerative agriculture improves soil health and promotes biodiversity (life like microbes, insects, plants, fungi, animals, etc.), while growing nutritious food profitably. How does soil health and biodiversity improve bee health?

Healthy soils make healthy plants. As tillage and monoculture-based agriculture has predominated the landscape, plant nutrition is falling. Pesticides and higher atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have been implicated as drivers, but really these are inextricable symptoms of soil degradation and biodiversity loss.

Regardless of the reasons for declines in plant nutrient density, the solution is clear. Through agronomically proven practices, farmers can quickly restore their soil’s physical, chemical, and biological health. Practices like no-till (or substantially reduced tillage), diversifying crop rotations, livestock-crop integration, and covering the soil with diverse plant communities are all options for farmers that want improve their soil health.

But plant diversity is also important, and fostering plant diversity on and around farms is essential to making bees healthy again. The diversity of nearly every group of organisms scales with plant diversity in a habitat. So if you want life in a habitat, you need plants. The pollen and nectar of different plant species contain micro-nutrients and microbial communities that honey bees need to be successful, so getting as many plant species as close to hives will give them a leg up.

Although this clearly is the answer to so many problems our planet is facing right now, agriculture is a big ship. So finding solutions that are natural and inexpensive will be important to stemming hive losses until we can right the ship of food production toward ecologically intensive systems.

A case of macro evolution

Evolution happens in fits and spurts. Often, small incremental steps lead species to diversify and adapt to their local conditions over millennia. But sometimes something catastrophic happens (like a meteorite hits the planet) that changes biological communities and culture in a big way very quickly.

Agriculture has acted like a meteorite hitting the earth, and humans are selecting for species that can survive in an agrichemical-laden, highly simplified landscape. A lot of insect species have become casualties of our decisions, and we are reshaping biological communities very quickly on a time scale that the planet has never experienced before. Honey bees are becoming one such casualty.

The effects of the industrialization of agriculture on the natural resource base upon which farming depends is also quickly shaping the culture of farming as well. When I present on the benefits of regenerative agriculture to farming audiences, I am often asked “This all sounds great, but what is it going to cost me to change my operation?”. My response is “Wrong question. What is it going to cost you NOT to change? It’ll cost you your farm. It’ll cost you your grandkids. What are you willing to lose by staying on the current course?”

Farmers are quickly realizing that the promises of the green revolution were short lived, and are starting to appreciate the importance of soil health to their long-term resilience. The farmers that don’t change won’t be around much longer. And there is growing support from unlikely sources to support farmers that are ready to make changes to their operations.

When losses turn

I had a horrible driving record as a younger man. I probably wasn’t defensive enough and other people kept running into me. When I protested that I didn’t need to change because the accidents weren’t my fault, my dad explained to me “I’m not arguing with you. The accidents are not your fault. But sometimes you can be 100% right, and still lose. Not everyone is following the same rules.” In the game of pesticides and industrialized agriculture, there are a lot of people that aren’t following the right rules. And the long term implications of greed can be hard to see.

By presenting the truth on pesticides in San Antonio in 2014 and researching bee declines and regenerative agriculture, I think I did the right thing. But as a result of this, I lost most of the outward face of my identity. And that loss helped me figure out who I am.

An increasing amount of harassment and scientific suppression followed my presentation at the San Antonio meeting. It culminated in a whistleblower case that received enough media attention to cure me of ever craving stardom. I quit my position as one of the leading scientists in the USDA soon afterward.

The loss of my career at USDA was just the beginning. When I left “the matrix” of academic science, I also lost my peer group. I find I interact less now with fellow scientists and more with farmers and beekeepers, and these relationships bulldoze me out of my comfort zone every day. It was a stressful time, and that stress revealed cracks in what I thought was a rock-solid marriage. So I lost my family as I knew it.

There are many martyrs when a change of paradigm is needed, and a lot of good people get hurt when someone stands up for what they think is right. They need to know when it is dark, that it will be okay.

I have a much firmer grasp of what is important now than I did. And new perspectives on science, food production, and happiness than I ever would have attained if I had stayed in the matrix. And right now, the bees really need these new perspectives.

I left the USDA and started a non-profit research facility and demonstration farm in regenerative agriculture. The hope is that this will become a national network in centers for excellence in regenerative agriculture. Grass roots, no-strings attached research that works in the farmer’s and beekeeper’s best interests. From these humble roots, I hope that a revolution in both science and agriculture will be conceived.

We haven’t solved the bee die offs yet, but my team and I work hard on this every single day. And as promised, I have had tremendous support from the beekeepers and farmers who are trying to make the world better for future generations.

Dr. Jonathan Lundgren is the director of Ecdysis Foundation and the Blue Dasher Farm initiative. He uses science, education, and demonstration to help change agriculture toward regenerative systems.

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