Benjamin Harrison

I really enjoy eating sugary breakfast cereals every now and then, but I’m more of a fan of muesli if I’m having something filling in the morning. However, one cereal that I do like quite a bit is  the Honey Pops Loops. In the Netherlands, it’s Kellogg’s that’s producing that type of ‘O’-shaped cereal; whereas in the the United States, it’s a company called General Mills. Their brand is the Cheerios, and their Honey Nut variant features a bee mascot just like the Loops we have here. What they did recently, however, was something Kellogg’s didn’t.

As you probably know, bees are extremely important for pollinating plants. Although certain sorts of crops such as carrots, onions, and wheat do not need pollination by bees (because they are pollinated by other methods, such as wind and non-bee insects), roughly 75% of all fruits, nuts, and vegetables require them to be produced effectively. Even though bees are not the most effective pollinators, their importance results from their relationship with flowers. You can move beehives around to pollinate certain regions on-demand and the bees will happily comply, whereas other pollinators won’t even interact with the flowers when deployed artificially.

General Mills, a week or so ago, launched a campaign titled ‘Bring Back the Bees.’ The campaign’s goal was to restore a strong population of wildflowers that are appealing to bees because of their nectar and pollen production. The company started sending out seeds to people who wanted them, with an initial ‘goal’ of having 100,000,000 seeds planted across the United States. Fortunately, they had no problem getting to their goal and ended up surpassing it by 1,400,000,000 seeds. That’s right, it’s a lot of seeds. They also removed their bee mascot from their packaging and replaced it with a silhouette to spotlight the issue further.

But why start such campaign with such a title; you still see bees around when you’re outside in spring and summer, right?

It may be true that you still see stray bees going around, but the real problem is not exactly about the bees you see, but more about the ones you don’t. The bee that comes to mind when you think of bees is the European honey bee, which is the most important pollinator on the planet, and their numbers have been declining at a rate of about 20 percent a year for several years. In 2016, the USDA reported a 44% decline in U.S. honey bee colonies, whereas the normal annual growth since 1961 had been about 1.5% worldwide. This peculiar and sudden decrease in the number of bees is called the colony collapse disorder (CCD), where bees simply leave behind a fully functioning hive.

Although the CCD is nothing new, the scale at which it is occurring is definitely new. Most staple foods are outside the endangered group I mentioned above, as they consist mostly of grains, underground root vegetables, and tubers. This doesn’t mean, however, that there is not so much to worry about.

First of all, it’s not just the European honey bee that’s disappearing. Other honey bee species from the United States are also heavily affected by the CCD, and the rusty-patched bumble bee was recently classified as Critically Endangered. This trend may ultimately lead to many different species being endangered too.

Secondly, even though staple foods are not going anywhere, a very large chunk of our regular diets consist of the crops that are pollinated by bees. This will have both economic consequences in terms of prices, where farmers will require higher subsidies by the governments to avoid having affected foods from becoming too expensive; and in employment, where farmers may start losing their jobs because it becomes unviable to keep producing foods that aren’t pollinated naturally. In addition to the foodstuffs, cotton is also an oilseed that must be pollinated by bees, which could wither in large sums and have a strong effect on the manufacturing clothing and household products. With all these plants dying out, and the bees disappearing, honey is also the primary bee product that is directly affected.

General Mills notes that thirty percent of their ingredients rely on pollination, which explains that it is not a mere corporate social responsibility act either. It ended up becoming a very successful marketing campaign for the company, that will hopefully make a noticeable change on the bee habitats. So, that answers the question of why the campaign started — but what about the question ‘why is the CCD even happening?’

It’s a bit harder to explain that one. Unfortunately, although we have certain ideas so as to why this could happen at a smaller scale, the cause of the sheer size of the CCD crisis cannot be pinpointed to one specific thing. Pesticides are being attacked specifically right now. With the increasing use of newly-developed pesticides, it is highly likely that the pesticides mess up with the bees’ health. The pesticides don’t have to directly kill off bees either; reducing bees’ fitness and olfactory discrimination performances can simply result in weaker bees that are unable to perform properly.

Other causes such as viruses and pathogens have also been identified. Several of them directly affect honey bees, such as the Varroa mite which carries a lot of dangerous viruses that can lead to deformed wings or paralysis. Fungicides, in addition to pesticides, are also found to lead to bees being three times more likely to be infected by parasites; even though they were previously thought to be harmless. Climate change, malnutrition due to monoculture diets, and electromagnetic radiation are also likely causes with significant effects.

Well, let’s ask one final question… what can we do?

There are certain ideas buzzing around. One of them is using drones to start pollinating; a Japanese group of scientists has discovered a gel that can be applied to small drones in order to pollinate plants at scale. Their experiments have been successful to some extent, but the biggest problem they are facing right now are related to piloting the drones, and their battery life. Even if the cost of the drones go down significantly, and artificial intelligence reaches a level where drones can be piloted automatically, you would still need an incredible amount of bee-drones. These bee-drones replacing the 3.2 trillion bees on the planet would also end up with a lot of robot litter.

Cutting down on dangerous pesticides is also another front in which there has been quite a lot of action. The European Commission recently urged a ban on all pesticides suspected of killing of bees. Although EU countries are yet to vote on the proposal by the Commission, the decision will have a great impact on the European farming industry. It is important to realise that banning pesticides comes at the cost of significant crop losses, but it is even more important to think about the long-term.

All in all, the solution may also be lying in your garden. Just as per the goal of the Cheerios campaign, covering gardens flowering plants that provide nectar and pollen can create a huge impact when done at scale. Creating hospitable environments for bees will help them both continue healthy lives and be more resilient against both natural and artificial hazards. If there is a trend towards blooming gardens for bees, then that can be the thing that gets the bee populations up to the pre-crisis levels.