Panic in Bloom

Bees are dying. So are moths. And every other kind of pollinator. No pollinators means no flowers, no fruit, no nuts. Is this the end of the world as we know it?

PART 1: Sex & Death

Bees are not tweeting amusing little double-entendre-loaded jokes about sex, or hiding in a boat after a massacre, capturing the whole world’s attention. Which is too bad, really, because if bees were tweeting, they’d have a whole lot to say about sex and death. They’d even have a lot to say about full-fledged orgies encompassing massacres and ending in enslavement.

For instance, your local honey bun kicks off with one seamy, steamy affair. It all starts when the virgin queen takes some practice flights, trying out her wings, never used before and soon enough never used again. Her pheromones bring all the drones to the yard—drones, of course, being the small number of male bees that any beehive produces, slackers who do no work, gather no pollen or nectar, and eat what their sisters procure while waiting for their one big shot at glory. That shot arises. The virgin queen takes flight, high and fast into the air, her pheromones signaling that now is when. Drones pursue, and the first fast and fleet enough to mate the flying queen deposits his sperm. With that act, he is disemboweled from jewel to juicy bit and plummets to the earth.

As many as 40-some more drones will follow in that first fellow’s lustful, successful, and gory steps. When the no-longer-virgin queen returns, she will have all the sperm she will ever need in her life, and she will spend the rest of her days laying as many as 2,000 eggs a day over her lifespan. The success of her colony is dictated by the number of partners she achieves on that memorable day. The more partners, the longer her life. Likely, she will not remember the sexy massacre that launched her million children on their path to serving as the vehicles for completing the sex lives of plants. She will remain in the dark, never again flying, enslaved till the end. Natural selection is a bitch.

But not as much a bitch as unnatural selection.

As you’ve no doubt heard by now, honeybees, those sexy beasts, are in severe, catastrophic decline. Pollinating bees contribute as much as $15 billion a year in value to the American agricultural system by pollinating the food that turns into one of every three mouthfuls we eat. However, in the early 2000s beekeepers started noticing their bees vanishing. In 2006 colony collapse disorder was named, and despite a name and a flurry of research and publicity, the American honeybee’s plight is worsening. This past winter a third of commercial bees died, 10 million hives died, and there were barely enough living bees to pollinate important crops such as California almonds, worth $4 billion a year. When Time magazine recently considered the dire state of the honeybee, the author concluded that unless robot bees emerge, we may be leaving the era of commonly available fruit. Are Minnesota apples soon to be as rare as Minnesota moose?

What’s killing all the bees?

We are.

PART 2: It’s All Our Fault

We are killing the bees the way a big dog might knock over knick-knacks in a china shop, a few here, a few there, just by turning and roaming and looking up and generally being us.

The varroa mite didn’t help. Called Varroa destructor, it’s a nasty, microscopically small thing that sucks the blood of bees. It came here from Asia because of our human habit of moving hives hither and yon. Another parasite called Nosema ceranae didn’t help, either. The parasite itself isn’t a big deal, but scientists recently discovered that when honeybees eat a typical diet of generic American pollen contaminated with 21 agricultural chemicals, the parasite kills the bees.

The pesticides, they don’t help. Neonicotinoids, the newest class of pesticides, are “systemic,” which means they are absorbed by a plant, move through its tissues, and stay there forever, ending up in every bit of pollen and nectar produced over the plant’s whole life. When the bees take the pollen and nectar home and concentrate it, as they do in honey-making, they transform what was thought to be a dilute and safe pesticide into a concentrated and lethal one. Neonicotinoids are currently the most popular pesticide in the United States, and virtually all non-organic-certified corn planted in Minnesota is treated with a neonicotinoid.

The genetic modifications to corn—altering it so that it expresses the Bt toxin—aren't helping. Minnesota has one of the highest uses of Bt corn in the country—more than two-thirds of the corn in the southwest corner of the state is Bt.

Roundup Ready, or glyphosate-resistant, corn and soybeans don’t help either, not because of anything about the corn or soybeans, particularly, but because by their very definition the crops, currently thought to be 90-plus percent of American soybeans and more than 70 percent of American corn, are designed to be drenched with herbicides. These herbicides have eliminated the wildflowers honeybees need for food between commercial agriculture crop blooms. In 2011, the latest year data is available, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture reported more than 25 million pounds of glyphosate being poured on the ground to kill everything that wasn’t corn or soybeans, like wildflowers.

A few million dead bees here, a few hundred thousand there—pretty soon it all adds up, and you’re talking real bee death.

For bees, life is now a thing in which periodic all-you-can-eat buffets of low-dose poison are interleaved with stretches of starvation.

We also kill a few more by converting marginal lands to subsidized commodity crop production, especially corn, and guaranteeing that marginal land will earn the farmer the same price as prime farmland would. Minnesota is number four in the nation in collecting farm subsidies.

We kill a few more by buying cheap counterfeit Chinese honey at chain stores. In 2011, Food Safety News tested chain-store honey and found three-quarters of what’s out there and cheap is fake honey from China. Fake, cheap honey puts downward price pressure on North American beekeepers, leading them to do stupid things like take too much healthy honey out of their hives and try to feed the bees corn syrup or sugar water.

And we probably kill a few more building housing on former wild lands and spraying pesticides in our gardens and around our churches. And someone’s dog probably ate a few. A few million dead bees here, a few hundred thousand there—pretty soon it all adds up, and you’re talking real bee death.

But that’s not all. Honeybees, of course, are notable to many of us because they are responsible for maybe $15 billion a year in agricultural value and bring us apples, muskmelons, and pumpkins, locally, and honeybees are the bees from which we gather honey. But there are other bees, bumblebees, mason bees, digger bees, leafcutter bees, sweat bees, wild bees of every stripe—the bees that inhabited North America before Europeans brought honeybees here—and those wild bees are facing the same collapse that honeybees are, except that they have no lobbyists or magazine covers. Neither do the moths.

PART 3: But Who’s Counting?

How are our Minnesota moths doing? “We actually don’t know a lot about our moths,” says Susan J. Weller, a professor at the University of Minnesota and executive director of the Bell Museum of Natural History, a woman with large, friendly eyes and an exceptionally calm demeanor. “Estimates for all the insect species in the world range from 10 to 12 million—we don’t actually know. There are about 130,000 butterflies and moth species known today and probably another 20,000 out there yet to be discovered. We have undiscovered species in drawers right here,” she says, gesturing to the University of Minnesota’s insect collection, on the St. Paul campus, a few buildings away. “We identify species and sometimes find they’re extinct.”

If we had been watching and counting those moths, in drawers, now extinct, would we have diagnosed them with colony collapse disorder, too?

“Inch by inch we need to think about our domination of nature and start shifting it in a deliberate way," says U of M professor Karen Oberhauser, "or we’ll just be counting things while they go extinct."

The great difference between pollinators in general and honeybees in particular seems to be that honeybees have various multi-billion-dollar industries documenting their particular fall off a cliff. But the catastrophic collapse of pollinators is happening all over the place. And it’s not merely a story of interest to bug-huggers.

Look out a window. Any window. “Seventy percent of the world’s flowering plants are dependent on pollinators,” explains Marla Spivak, MacArthur fellow and distinguished McKnight professor in entomology, who runs the Bee Lab at the University of Minnesota and has the exasperated air of someone who has been trying to convey that the house is on fire to a bunch of people absorbed with their televisions for many, many years. “But people don’t care. Most people don’t like bees. Most people clump them in with all insects, all creepy-crawly insects, and all creepy-crawly insects need to be destroyed.”

And destroyed they are being. Which might put 75 to 80 percent of everything you see out the window in current mortal peril. Pollinators are what’s known as a keystone species. Lose the keystone, and the arch holding up the church comes crashing down. No pollinator, no plant; no plant, no bug; no bug, no bird, no fox, no wolf, no raptor. We’ll probably be fine, eating corn and drinking vitamin water, but everything else will be gone. Welcome to the Anthropocene.

PART 4: It's a New Era!

First of all, I’m not crazy about that word,” says Jonathan Foley, director of the Institute on the Environment (IonE) at the University of Minnesota, where he is a professor and McKnight presidential chair in global sustainability. He also leads the IonE’s Global Landscapes Initiative and co-founded Ensia, the University of Minnesota’s digital initiative to showcase environmental thought.

“There’s no real agreement about the best way to even say it.” You could say an-THROW-pa-seen or an-THROP-a-seen. “The notion is that the geologic era that the Earth is in has been the Holocene, and it’s been the Holocene for about the last 10,000 years, since the last Ice Age. We’ve had a nice, stable, pleasant weather forecast for 10,000 years.

“But people are now saying: ‘Gosh, sometime recently we’ve taken the Earth out of that 10,000-year normal into a new normal which is fundamentally different. And this new normal is a new climate, a new biosphere, a new land, new waterways, and new chemicals everywhere. Most of these changes are due to growing food the way we do.”

Is it time to freak out? What with our planet of novel chemicals and toxins leading to mass extinctions? No, say the scientists.

These food-growing changes are no small potatoes. The International Union of Geologic Sciences, the folks who decide the Earth’s timescale, have convened a group of scholars to officially decide whether the Holocene is over and the Anthropocene has begun, meaning human influence is so great we are the single entity most impacting the Earth’s crust. Us and our corn and our cows, explains Foley. “We’ve converted about 40 percent of the Earth’s land surface to growing food,” he notes. An area the size of South America is used for farming, and an area the size of Africa is used for pasture. Just about the rest of the Earth can be accounted for in city, lawn, desert, a little rainforest, and ice. “Almost everybody would accept the notion that we’re now living in a human-dominated planet. That’s simply the most observable fact about Earth today.

“Imagine the aliens come to visit the Earth every 100 years. I’m not a UFO guy, of course, but metaphorically, ET comes by every 100 years, looking down with his digital camera, taking a picture of the Earth. ‘Hey, Mom, look where I’ve been,’ and he posts it on ET Facebook or something. And they come back today after the last visit a hundred years ago: ‘Wow, these people, these humans, have gotten really busy. They’ve cleared most of the planet. They built all these cities. All of a sudden you can see their cities at night. They’re getting rid of the rainforests. They’re over-reaching, don’t you think, Mom?’”

Foley’s eyes narrow when he confronts a problem. He seems concerned I might think his UFO metaphor is a tacit endorsement of X-Files extraterrestrial believers and miss the point that we’ve made a new planet, emptied of many plants, full of new chemicals, which is killing all the pollinators and possibly 70 to 80 percent of all the plants, which includes a good chunk, maybe 30 percent, of the stuff we eat. Goodbye, nuts.

Farewell, fruit. Bid thee well, flowers.

Hello, panic.

PART 5: Don’t Panic

Is it time to freak out? What with our terraformed planet of novel chemicals and toxins leading to mass extinctions? No, say the scientists. “Freaking out is just not a very good strategy,” Foley says. “I’ve never seen anybody solve a problem by freaking out. If something bad were happening to me and my health, I want the doctor who doesn’t freak out—‘Oh, shit, you’re sick!’ I want the doctor who comes in and says, ‘OK, this is deadly serious. I’m going to calmly think about what we do. Now I have a plan.’”

Karen Oberhauser has thought calmly about these things. She’s a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology and director of the Monarch Larva Monitoring Project.

We could see the same resurgence in bumblebees that we’ve seen with bald eagles. But it requires doing something . . . right away.

“At its base I think this is the tragedy of any problem with many causes,” she says. “Humans are good at solving problems that have one cause: the CFCs, which caused the hole in the ozone layer. Now we don’t use CFCs, problem solved. DDT was one thing. What’s happening to butterflies and bees is many things.” So the first thing we need to do is to stop looking for ‘a Colonel Mustard in the library with the candlestick’- type answer.

“The biggest problem facing monarchs is the loss of breeding habitat,” Oberhauser explains. But there’s more: “Milkweed, their food, used to be in cornfields, and now it’s not. The insecticides used to kill adult mosquitoes kill monarchs, too. Neonicotinoids are in so much of the nectar that insects encounter.” So the way forward for monarchs is simple, but it’s not one thing; it’s several: Start planting milkweed, start putting back some of the food that was taken away, and make sure it isn’t poisoned.

Oberhauser recently oversaw the establishment of a native plant butterfly garden outside of her lab on the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota, and she found it remarkably difficult to guarantee that the plants weren’t grown from seeds treated with a neonicotinoid, which would make them generate toxins for their entire lives. But she did it, and today that bee- and butterfly- friendly garden is a riot of life, with bright purple asters, thick stalks of fleshy milkweeds, and dragonflies zipping along the seedheads.

“Inch by inch, we need to do this,” she says. “Inch by inch we need to think about our domination of nature and start shifting it in a deliberate way, or we’ll just be counting things while they go extinct. A yard doesn’t have to look the way it does, low grass to mow, patches of exotic flowers here and there. If lawns were replaced with plants which benefit wildlife, it would add up. It’s been five years since I took out the grass at my house. Most of my neighbors love the way it looks now, the native flowers. One didn’t. She put up a fence.”

PART 6: The Way Forward

Biodiversity is not an aesthetic most people are in tune to these days. “We feel like we should sit on our decks and not be bothered by a spider,” Oberhauser says. “We feel like it should be 70 degrees all the time. But we need to understand that we really are part of nature, and if we destroy everything, it’s not going to be good for us. Our well-being is not the same thing as our being 100 percent comfortable all of the time. I’m not saying we should not have lawns, but I am saying we should not only have lawns. Just that little change in our mindset could change so much.”

Elaine Evans is a graduate student who works with Marla Spivak and spends much of her time trying to count rusty patched bumblebees. Her Midway neighborhood garden in St. Paul is full of mints such as bee balm and wildflowers such as Joe-Pye weed. She has seen rusty patched bumblebees only a few times in her life—and one of those times was in her plain old house garden in the heart of the city. Another time was near the rose garden at Lake Harriet. Why is this imperiled fuzzy bear in those two places? Because bumblebees go where there is bee food.

If you yourself live within a mile or two of St. Paul’s Como Lake or Minneapolis’s Lake Harriet rose garden and you dropped everything and planted bee food, you personally could be responsible for saving the rusty patched bumblebee. And then if someone within a mile of you did the same, well, you can see how it goes; we could see the same resurgence in rusty patched bumblebees that we’ve seen with bald eagles. But it requires doing something, planting something, right away.

“There are 300 native species of bees in Minnesota and 18 different species of bumblebees,” explains Evans. “All the bumblebees are generalists and will travel two miles from their nests for food. If you plant food bees like, without pesticides, that can make a big difference.” Once they have food, they also need shelter. Bumblebees breed and overwinter in nests; the fuzzy fat little critters require bare ground they can burrow into for winter. That black plastic lining so many gardeners put down as a weed barrier indirectly kills bees, too, by limiting their nesting sites. Trees are bee food, also, especially native Minnesota maples, lindens (also called basswoods), and willows. For Evans, the way forward is to plant bee food, short and tall, free of black plastic.

Foley has a way forward, too, and while a lot of it involves marshaling science and presenting it in such a way that big actors, such as corporations and governments, can see things such as how bad use of water can lead to unstable commodity prices or populations, he also takes steps at home. He has what he calls a “nano-orchard” on his standard tiny Crocus Hill house lot, with cherries, apples, pears, gooseberries, and currants. His neighbors all have fruit trees now, too: apricots, peaches, even Russian quince providing pollen and nectar for the local pollinators, who in turn make the trees bear fruit. “We have a bunch of birdhouses and bat houses and stuff, just for fun,” Foley says. For Foley the way forward includes hard science, a refusal to panic, and nano-orchards with neighbors.

PART 7: It’s Quite Simple, Really

For Marcie O’Connor, there’s nothing nano about it. She and her husband bought a 450-acre farm in western Wisconsin, not too far from Pepin, and when the kids went off to college began “unfarming” it, restoring it to its native blend of prairie and savannah. Before that, when O’Connor was raising her children in St. Paul, the former botany major converted her front yard into prairie and her backyard into woods. They had a cabin on the St. Croix, and she restored its shoreline to native wetland.

“My idea of what’s beautiful correlates to what’s alive,” she says. “A lawn to me is a dead thing. You don’t see any bugs. You don’t see any dragonflies. You don’t see anything. When you have a prairie it’s constantly moving. There are moths, butterflies, flies, dragonflies, and all the birds who eat the bugs. People don’t understand that birds are utterly dependent on native bugs and native seeds.”

O’Connor documents her unfarm-ing at aprairiehaven.com. One day in July she counted 465 Baltimore checkerspot butterflies. She has put her “unfarm” in a land trust, so that it will always be a haven for native species. “It’s really rewarding, really fun,” says O’Connor. “I think we’ve reached a point in thinking about the environment where we need to realize saving the eagles is great, but what about everything that’s not the eagles? If you save the habitat, you save everything.”

Some 75 percent of everything is in grave danger, and you could fix it, by a little understanding and appreciation of the less cuddly parts of the environment.

O’Connor also has a condo in Falcon Heights, and she worked with the board to return some of the condo’s farther-flung grounds to native prairie and wetland. Now everywhere O’Connor goes there are butterflies on blooms, and sometimes foxes, luna moths, and scarlet tanagers.

Can it be that simple? Yes and no. To get a few hundred million people to recognize a crisis and act together to reverse it doesn’t often happen. But it could.

“There’s a lot of fatalism out there,” notes Spivak, who has been watching the issue of colony collapse disorder unspool over the last decade, while the wild bees and other unsexy pollinators collapse publicity-free. “But if everybody would just plant flowers, as many as you can, just grow organic bee food, every bit would help. A little pot of flowers on your doorstep is not enough to support a whole colony of bees, but a whole neighborhood filled with pots might be. If everybody does a little, collectively, it would be a big help. We need to stop thinking of ourselves at every turn.”

We think of ourselves even when we’re not thinking of ourselves, with our culturally-passed-down, unconscious values of how a yard should look and which flowers express love. “We breed flowers to be pretty to us,” says Spivak. “But a bee can’t get into a Valentine’s Day rose. Bees need native flowers. We’ve decided we need monocultures of corn, of soybeans, of lawn. For some reason anything we grow we want edge-to-edge only that thing. Why can’t we go back to diversified agriculture? Why can’t there be some places for flowers? It’s time for a correction. The bees are indicating that with their death.” Look out the window. This is the Anthropocene, and you’re living in it. Some 75 percent of everything is in grave danger, and you could fix it, by a little understanding and appreciation of the less cuddly parts of the environment and planting or encouraging the planting of some poison-free native flowers.

The moths and butterflies and bees can’t tweet. They can only flap and buzz. And to really get a point across they fall over dead. But if their point is neither amusing nor on the cover of Rolling Stone, can we hear it? ■

For further reading: See Mpls.St.Paul senior writer Steve Marsh's profile of U of M entomologist Dr. Marla Spivak 


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