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On Bee Enslavement and Other Nonsense

I’ve seen many crazy headlines about the challenges facing honeybees, but this one takes the cake:

“Bee collapse is the result of their enslavement in industrial monocultures.”

So now, not only are humans “killing off” bees, we are “enslaving” them! According to this article, “industrial agriculture” is the problem and technological approaches won’t help things. However, the authors don’t offer much of any solution other than: Until local agriculture replaces global agriculture, there will always be another parasite, another virus, another mysterious collapse.”

Although they don’t define “local agriculture,” their criticism on the use of pesticides and other methods for high-yield farming suggests they would like to go organic. Unfortunately, that approach is not only unlikely to help feed the world growing populations or create affordable food domestically, it would also be bad news for wildlife. 

As research scholar Indur Goklany and others have pointed out, producing more food per acre—thanks to agro-technologies such as pesticides and genetic modification—means we have more land for wildlife. For example, Goklany’s research shows that if we did not have high-yield agriculture and we still farmed the way we did back in 1910, we’d have to plant more than three times the amount of land that we plant now to generate the same amount of food.

In that case, there would be less space left for wildlife. A better approach involves the strategic use of technology along with private stewardship to provide habitat for species. We can leverage the tools we have and ensure minimal environmental impact along with taking concerted actions to protect nature’s creatures at the same time.

But the authors of this article don’t offer any such balance and instead provide misleading information by suggesting that farming practices in remote areas of china prove that modern farming elsewhere is bad for the environment. Superficially they say:

In fact, there are now parts of China where bees have already gone extinct, requiring apple orchards to employ between 20 and 25 people to pollinate a hundred trees - something wild pollinators or a couple of hives worth of bees would normally do.

Despite impressions created in this article, hand pollination is not widespread, is often done for economic rather than environmental reasons, and bees there are not “extinct.” Entomologist Gwen Pearson, Ph.D., offers a balanced article on this topic in this in Wired. She explains that honeybees are not extinct in these areas of China (some people keep them for honey production and some are used for farming) and there are economic reasons that the people there chose to hand pollinate.

It is true, as Pearson points out, the Chinese farmers appear to have misused pesticides because they lack understanding about these modern technologies. For example, some of the Chinese farmers don’t know that spraying pesticides can kill valuable pollinators. If they did, they could time spraying when bees are not foraging and be more strategic about how they employ these tools. It’s also reasonable to assume that they lack the wealth that allows farmers to set aside land for wildlife as well as select the best and more appropriate technologies.

In fact, as Pearson notes, some amount of hand pollination in China is driven by economic forces related to more efficient pollination and production of profitable crops—even where active and healthy pollinators are available.

The simple reality remains: if people are to eat around the world, agro-technologies along with the education on how to use them, is critical. Of course, there are myriad other factors that impede productive farming practices, including politics that promote poverty rather than wealth creation.  

Ultimately, it is market-driven wealth creation that facilitates solutions, including private action for wildlife. Farmers and others can, as many do, provide additional plantings of nectar-bearing flowers to enhance the pollinators because it’s both in their best interest and because they value wildlife.

Unfortunately, dumb government policies—such as government subsidies and ethanol mandates in the U.S.—often deters conservation and strategic use of land resources. And in government-dominated economies, such as in China, regulations and resulting poverty and poor education are the biggest impediments to rational approaches for farming and wildlife conservation.

Technology is not the problem!