On Beeing

Roman Mars:
This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
If you drive from Oakland to Los Angeles in February, you’ll pass through a spectacular scene – neat symmetrical rows of trees, covered with pink and white flowers, stretching on for hundreds of miles. This is the annual California almond bloom, and it really is massive. California almond trees take up a million acres of land in the Central Valley. When the petals fall off, they carpet the road and create this sweet smell.

Adam Allington:
The almond bloom also has its own distinctive sound. You can actually hear it before you even walk into the orchard (bees buzzing).

Adam Allington:
That’s the sound of thousands of bees from an orchard outside of Modesto, California. To create a single almond, a blossom needs as many as a dozen bee visits. That means you need roughly 80,000 bees to pollinate an acre of almonds.

Roman Mars:
That’s Adam Allington. He’s a reporter covering the environment for Bloomberg. He also hosts the podcast, “The Business of Bees”.

Adam Allington:
When you think of bees in business, you’re probably thinking of honey. But, in fact, honey has little to do with commercial beekeeping today. Every winter, beekeepers from every corner of the United States descend on California to pollinate almonds. Almonds have a window of about two weeks for pollination to occur. Otherwise, the blossoms won’t turn into fruit. The demand is so high, it takes almost every beehive in the country to do the job, upwards of two million hives.

John Miller:
This is the largest managed pollination event on Earth.

Adam Allington:
This is John Miller. He’s a fourth-generation beekeeper from North Dakota. Every year, John brings 13,000 hives over 1,500 miles to the Central Valley.

John Miller:
I’ve got the best job on Earth. Look at this. It’s a beautiful spring day in northern California. Almond trees are in bloom. I just love it (bees buzzing).

Adam Allington:
What are we looking at right here?

John Miller:
This is the top of the hive. These are the occupants. These are the little bees. They’re hanging out. This guy just landed (bees buzzing).

Adam Allington:
For a beekeeper like John, pollination isn’t just big business. It’s most of his business. In recent years, almond pollination has become so lucrative, it accounts for about two-thirds of John’s income.

Adam Allington:
How much of this honey actually will go to making honey for people to eat?

John Miller:
None.

Adam Allington:
Instead of selling the honey, John says it’s more cost-effective to just leave it in the hive as food for the bees. After pollinating almonds, John will load his bees onto a semi-truck, and they’ll move from one crop to another in other states.

John Miller:
They’ll go from almonds to plums to cherries to apples to vine crops to pit fruits to cotton to lima beans to watermelons, and then their season is over.

Roman Mars:
Farmers have known for centuries that putting a hive of honeybees in an orchard results in more blossoms becoming cherries, almonds or apples. But it’s only in the last 30 years that pollination services, like the kind that John provides, have become such an enormous part of American agriculture.

Adam Allington:
Today, bees have become more livestock than wild creatures – basically tiny little winged cows that depend on humans for shelter, food, and even medicine.

Roman Mars:
For thousands of years, our relationship with bees was much simpler. It was really all about the honey. Way before sugar came along, honey was one of the few sweeteners we had.

Adam Allington:
There are 8,000-year old cave paintings in Spain of people collecting wild honey. Once humans got a taste for honey, they do almost anything to get it.

Adam Allington:
Alexander Zomchek is an apiculturist at Miami University, Ohio. He studies bees and agriculture.

Alexander Zomchek:
To put it gently, we found ourselves as plunderers when we tripped across natural beehives, the Winnie-the-Pooh trees in the wild.

Adam Allington:
When people came across one of these trees, they would cut it down.

Alexander Zomchek:
In so doing, rob the bees this honey. It was not a wonderful experience. We didn’t have bee suits. It was a pretty raw event.

Roman Mars:
These collectors would smother and kill the bees with smoke, and then they’d take the honey. It was not exactly a sustainable process.

Alexander Zomchek:
Slowly, over time, it really dawned on us that, well, what if we tried to put them in a container?

Adam Allington:
By the Middle Ages, beekeepers in Europe had designed a method of capturing swarms of bees and then putting them inside woven upside-down baskets called skeps.

Roman Mars:
For all of you vexillologists out there, there’s actually a bee skep on the state flag of Utah. It’s got a little door for the bees to come in and out. It’s positioned right in the center between the words of “Utah” and “Industry”.

Adam Allington:
An obvious advantage of the skep design was that you didn’t have to go out and hunt for the honey and chop down a tree to get it. The skeps were portable. When the first Europeans came to America, they brought along a few skeps full of honeybees which are actually not native to North America.

Roman Mars:
The species the Europeans brought over is called Apis Mellifera. It’s Latin for “honey carrier”. Of the 20,000 bee species in the world, Apis Mellifera is the only one that can produce enough honey to be useful for humans.

Alexander Zomchek:
They formed larger colonies. It had a gentle nature. It was a good honey producer. It was one that we could use around the world, and that was our golden retriever.

Adam Allington:
These docile, sweet-tempered bees did really well in America.

Tammy Horn Potter:
There’s a good saying by a 17th century scholar that said the honey bees did better than the settlers did.

Adam Allington:
That’s Tammy Horn Potter.

Tammy Horn Potter:
I am the Kentucky State apiarist. I work with the Kentucky Department of Agriculture.

Adam Allington:
Tammy also wrote a book titled “Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation”. She says the honeybees loved their new continent.

Tammy Horn Potter:
There were plenty of stands of a type of a species of tree called black gum. Black gum trees are notable because they decay from the inside out very quickly. They would swarm and take up residence in these trees, and so honeybees did very well.

Adam Allington:
By the middle of the 19th century, honeybees were well established in North America. People were still keeping them in skeps or hunting small amounts of wild honey in nature but, eventually, everything changed with a Presbyterian minister named Lorenzo Langstroth. After attending seminary at Yale, Langstroth returned to his hometown of Philadelphia in 1848. During this time, Langstroth began to struggle with mental illness. In diaries from the time, his family referred to it as head troubles. Today, it’s what we’d call seasonal affective disorder.

Roman Mars:
Back then, a standard prescription to fight depression would be laudanum. That’s an alcoholic solution containing morphine. But Langstroth’s doctor wanted to try something more gentle. He told him to spend more time outdoors, which he did. He would take long walks on his own out in nature, and he developed an extreme fascination with wild honeybees.

Alexander Zomchek:
He literally just spent hours, days, weeks, and months staring at these hollow bee trees until an idea finally clicked in his mind.

Adam Allington:
Langstroth noticed something about beehives in the wild. There was this pattern, a kind of mathematical precision to the spacing between the honeycombs.

Alexander Zomchek:
The moment came when he realized there is the same exact space, a carpenter’s number (three-eighths of an inch) between every one of these columns. They were measured again and again – different hives, different times, different colonies – and it’s always three-eighths of an inch.

Roman Mars:
Langstroth called this area the “bee space”. Three-eighths of an inch is the exact amount of space bees need to move around a colony. They’re like little hallways between honeycombs.

Adam Allington:
Then Langstroth took this idea of the bee space and he put it in a box. Inside each wooden hive box, he would hang a series of removable frames, kind of like empty picture frames. Each one was spaced three-eighths of an inch apart.

Roman Mars:
When Langstroth put bees inside the box, they looked up at the frames and they thought, “Hey, you know what? This looks a lot like home.” Then other bees joined in. Before you know it, they were making colonies inside these boxes.

Adam Allington:
And the Langstroth Hive was invented. It’s the modern beehive, the one that we still have today. It was the first artificial hive, which could be easily controlled and moved around. It changed everything about beekeeping.

Tammy Horn Potter:
Oh, it was fundamental. I mean, there’s just no doubt about that because once beekeepers can manage colonies, they can check on their health. Say, if it’s a drought, they can help provide supplemental food.

Adam Allington:
Langstroth’s innovations meant people could keep more bees and the bees could reuse their honeycombs because people weren’t destroying them all the time, which allowed honey production to go way up.

Roman Mars:
Langstroth published a book of his findings in 1853 called “The Hive and the Honey-Bee”. It’s still widely read in beekeeping circles today. Once it got out, beekeeping became big business all over the world.

Archive Tape:
“The hives got crammed with honey and ready for men to rob. The bees have made millions of jellies to add to that precious store. To bee or not to bee; to bee it is.”

Adam Allington:
After World War I, people kept innovating and honey production went from family farming to a giant commercial operation. By the end of World War II, there was something like 5.9 million commercial beehives in the United States. It also set the stage for the next chapter of beekeeping, the rise of commercial pollination.

Adam Allington:
In the 1950s, small family farms started getting pushed out by big companies and industrial agriculture. While family farms had fields with different crops growing side by side, the new model replaced the whole system with ever-expanding fields devoted to growing just one plant. Instead of planting cover crops to replenish the soil after the harvest, they’d just use fertilizer.

Roman Mars:
Some of our commercial crops like corn, rice, and wheat are pollinated by the wind, but many of our fruits and vegetables rely on insects to do the job. As the entire business became more and more industrialized and shifted to monoculture, there was a need for greater certainty when it came to pollination. Commercial bees, thanks to the Langstroth Hive, were a perfect fit. Controlled by humans and highly portable, they were able to do more pollinating in a day than most wild insects do in a week. So instead of trusting the local ecosystem to pollinate their crops, many farms came to depend on this single domesticated species of bee.

Adam Allington:
As farmers grew more crops, commercial beekeepers started earning more money by renting out their bees as pollinators. While pollination is big business in the United States, actually, the U.S. is pretty much the only country that does this.

Adam Allington:
Jeff Lee is a commercial beekeeper from North Carolina. Every year, he ships 1,200 hives to California to pollinate almonds.

Jeff Lee:
In March, they’ll come back to North Carolina where I will do high bush blueberry pollination. After that, they will go up to Maine. That’s where they’ll do the low bush blueberry pollination, and some will go to Wisconsin for cranberry pollination, and others will come right back to North Carolina for cucumber and watermelon pollination.

Roman Mars:
Today, commercial beekeepers get most of their income from pollination. They’re paid around $200 per hive for a few weeks of pollinating almonds.

Adam Allington:
If you do the math, $200 per hive times, say, 1000 hives, that’s $200,000 which sounds like pretty good money for three weeks of work. But Lee says the cost for keeping bees alive has shot through the roof in the last couple of years. Right now, beekeepers are facing one big challenge. You might already know about it if you watch the worst movie of 2008, “The Happening”, starring Mark Wahlberg as a beleaguered science teacher.

Mark Wahlberg:
“I don’t know if you guys heard about this article on New York Times. Apparently, honeybees are just disappearing all over the country. Tens of millions of them. All right, let’s hear some theories about why this may be happening. Nobody? You’re not interested in what happened to the bees?”

Adam Allington:
Tragically, I have seen “The Happening”. Marky Mark is not good in this movie, but he’s right, the bees are dying.

Local TV Report:
“Adult bees leave the hive and never come back, leaving the babies to die. Researchers blame pesticides, disease, and parasites.”

Roman Mars:
Back in 2007, reports of a mysterious bee plague “colony collapse disorder” were making headlines all over the country, and it got people worried. There were articles warning us about the end of bees. There were studies by freaked out scientists.

Adam Allington:
Colony collapses when all the bees in a colony just disappear in the course of a few days. There’s no bee corpses to do an autopsy on and no obvious signs of poisoning. Around 2007, it was happening a lot. The number of cases technically labeled as colony collapse has actually gone down since then, but Jeff Lee says it’s still happening – bees disappearing or dying in huge numbers.

Jeff Lee:
This last year I had the most losses I have ever had. I’m reading the literature, and I’m trying to do everything I can to keep the bees healthy.

Adam Allington:
A recent survey of commercial beekeepers found the average yearly die-off rate is about 40%, which is way higher than the 10% to 15% which used to be normal. Researchers point to increased use of pesticides as one factor. And when the bees started dying, there were protests.

Protesters:
“All we are saying is give bees a chance.”

Protester:
“No more poison. You’re not just killing the bees. You’re killing yourself.”

Adam Allington:
But pesticides aren’t the only culprit. Another problem is an invasive parasitic mite from Asia called “varroa destructor”.

Bayer Audio Clip:
“Once it has penetrated the beehive, the varroa mite multiplies in the brood cells where the queen has laid her eggs. They use their mouthparts to suck up blood-like fluid from the bee larvae, and then lay their eggs in the brood cell.”

Adam Allington:
This is a video from 2017. It’s made by Bayer, the largest producer of pesticides in the world.

Roman Mars:
Given that, of course, Bayer wants us to focus on the mites.

Bayer Audio Clip:
“By the time the bee hatches, it is weakened, often infected with viruses, and has a shortened lifespan. The varroa mite can also be carried by the bee into other beehives.”

Adam Allington:
Varroa mites have wiped out tens of millions of beehives in the United States. Since the European honeybee didn’t evolve alongside the mite, the bees don’t have a natural defense. Because most of the commercial beehives in the country end up in a single place in California, every February, we’ve created the ideal scenario for varroa mites just spread from one hive to another.

Roman Mars:
Which is a real threat to our food supply because our whole agricultural system has become dependent on this single, vulnerable species of insect. Now, it’s hard to imagine feeding the country without them.

Tammy Horn Potter:
It’s inextricable from industrial ag, which the United States excels in. Not just excels, it defines industrial ag. That’s at the root of all of our ability to have monocultural orchards. Your pumpkins, your raspberries, blueberries, and blackberries. You don’t get those massive tracks of production without pollination.

Roman Mars:
But there are farmers today who are trying to rely less on honeybee livestock by reintroducing wild bees and insects into the pollination landscape.

Adam Allington:
According to entomologists, just a small amount of plant diversity can help boost the population of wild bees and other pollinators like butterflies and beetles. An example of this is something called a “pollinator hedgerow”, basically a small strip of native weeds or flowers near the edge of a field that can provide habitat in food for wild insects and bees all year round.

Roman Mars:
The history of agriculture has been a history of control – trying to bend nature to our will, and make it predictable and productive. But for the sake of the bees and maybe even for the future of our food supply, we might need an agricultural system that’s just a little bit more wild.

Roman Mars:
More with Adam about how domesticated bees became a symbol of conservation after this.

BREAK

Roman Mars:
In the story, you mentioned that “Save the Bees” has become a big part of the conservation movement in the last couple of years. When I was a kid, it was all whales, pandas, and other charismatic megafauna. How did bees take off as both a focus of activism and as a symbol?

Adam Allington:
Well, I think it really started around 2006 with the onset of the “colony collapse disorder” scare. Honeybees really became this symbol of confluence of all these environmental problems. They had the advantage of being cute, cuddly, and easily identifiable creatures. Environmentalists really latched onto them. In some cases, some states actually sued to create protections for honeybees. You’ve probably heard the protests. There was actually a really huge protest in the UK a few years back where protesters dressed up like Winnie-the-Pooh were holding signs and singing songs. Basically, we are all beekeepers.

Roman Mars:
Winnie-the-Pooh wasn’t the greatest beekeeper.

Adam Allington:
No. In fact, most of those hives that Winnie-the-Pooh was actually robbing were paper wasps, which don’t actually produce honey.

Adam Allington:
When you talk to most people about saving the bees, the image that they probably have in their head is like of an orange and black honeybee. This is the result of all of this promotion and cartoon bees like the Honey Nut Cheerios bee. One person I spoke with for this series, Katherine Baldock, she’s a biologist in the UK, and she says the big reason people care about bees and conservation is the honeybee.

Katherine Baldock:
They’re kind of like the panda, aren’t they, in need of desperate conservation. I think it is a good thing. By conserving or by trying to help bees, we’re generally improving habitat, putting more flowers in, and that’s going to benefit a whole host of other kind of species. So yeah, I think it’s a good thing that they’re kind of like a bit of a symbol of conservation in a way, aren’t they?

Adam Allington:
The panda of bees are struggling. In fact, we’re losing about 40% per year, but they aren’t an extinction risk. They’re managed just like cows or sheep. They’ll probably be okay. It’s really the native bees that we’re worried about. The key distinction here is that things that benefit honeybees don’t always benefit native bees, especially when the two species are competing for the same resources. Actually, this has kind of become a problem in recent years. Beekeepers have lobbied the federal government to be allowed to put their honeybee hives into national parks where the bees then can out-compete native bees for the floral resources. That’s a case where you have this managed species, a honeybee out competing with a native species.

Roman Mars:
Wow. So honeybees might not be a great symbol for conservation after all. What species would be more accurate if you wanted to have invertebrate mascot for environmentalists?

Adam Allington:
Well, there’s no shortage of candidates, that’s for sure – about 20,000 bee species in the world. Let’s run through just a couple that spring to the top of your mind. The black sweat bee, this is kind of like the Ozzy Osbourne of bees – all black, kind of looks more like a fly with these kind of purple eyes. We’ve got ground-nesting bees like the mason bees, which kind of resemble honeybees, a little more shaggy, a little more rough around the edges. Then the rusty patched bumblebee, which was actually recently added to the endangered species lists. It’s actually quite cute and cuddly. It looks like a bumblebee except it’s got these two little rust-colored orange patches on its back. That would be a bee that could compete on cuteness alone.

Roman Mars:
(Laughs) Other than finding the perfect fuzzy symbol for conservation when it comes to bees, if people are concerned about bees and the health of bee populations, what can they do?

Adam Allington:
Well, this is where there’s a bit of good news because, unlike other big, looming environmental issues which can kind of be abstract or maybe difficult to wrap your head around in terms of individual action, things like climate change for instance, with pollinators, you can actually do something that will create direct benefit for bees. This doesn’t include, unfortunately, buying things like local honey from the farmer’s market. Don’t get me wrong, I love honey, but it doesn’t actually help native bees if we’re purchasing a product that’s created by honeybees. The same thing goes with backyard beekeeping. It doesn’t do anything to help pollinators by raising basically this agricultural livestock.

Adam Allington:
Toward that end, there are things you can do which is, obviously, plant more native flowers and plants in your yard, plants that can bloom at different times throughout the year to give those bees something to feed on. Other things, obviously, like avoiding pesticides, for example, or perhaps consider letting your lawn go a bit wild, letting all those dandelions come up in the springtime, those are things that can really help native pollinators quite a bit.

Roman Mars:
I’m so excited about this because I hate taking care of the lawn and letting it go wild is exactly in keeping with both my ethic as a conservationist and as a lazy human. It seems perfect for me.

Adam Allington:
There you go. Now you’ve got an explanation.

Roman Mars:
Because the neighbors get mad, and I can just say I’m doing it for the bees.

Adam Allington:
Exactly.

Roman Mars:
Thank you so much.

Adam Allington:
Thank you, Roman.

Roman Mars:
If you’d like to hear more about the connections between honeybees and our environmental landscape, you should check out Adam’s show. It’s called “The Business of Bees”. It’s available everywhere you get your podcast.

Credits

Production

Reporter Adam Allington spoke to beekeeper John Miller; Alexander Zomchek, an apiculturist at Miami University; Tammy Horn Potter, a Kentucky State apiarist who works with the Kentucky Department of agriculture; and Jeff Lee, a commercial beekeeper from North Carolina.

Comments (10)

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  1. Love, love, love the show so much but this episode really seemed to miss the mark. I’m glad the rusty patched bumblebee got the tiniest of shoutouts but generally disappointed with the centering of industrial beekeeping in the episode’s narrative. The travel intensive monoculture system exacerbates bee collapse [https://www.ehn.org/monoculture-farming-is-not-good-for-the-bees-study-2639154525.html] and it would have BEEn nice to hear from a different kind of beekeeper. Also there are sooooo many cool bee stories to tell that don’t involve the sustainability nightmare that is the almond industry, like the Meliponini stingless bees native to South America [https://ethnobiomed.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1746-4269-10-47], communities of urban beekeepers [http://www.bees.nyc], and hyper-local honey terroir [https://andrewshoney.com/product-category/new-york-city-honeys/]!

    Appreciate all your good work – thanks for taking the time to read!

    1. Andrew Sleeth

      Thanks for sharing the article links.
      In the intro ecology class I took in college some 30+ years ago, the principle demonstrated to us time and again in the science was the simple axiom, Diversity begets diversity, and homogeneity begets crisis. (Rather surprisingly, this was at a small evangelical school.) Even then, monoculture farming was recognized as an unsustainable path, and in the U.S. at least, government agricultural policy was simply broadening that road toward destruction.

    2. Janet Lippincott

      Actually, Gabriel, thinking of bees as livestock and the industry of beekeeping was, in my opinion, one of the fascinating aspects of this episode. Always interesting to learn something new.

  2. Jorge McCormack

    In the podcast, you said University of Miami, which is in Coral Gables, Florida. The correct institution is Miami University, which is in Ohio. As an Alumna of the former, I hate be confused with the latter.

  3. Anne-Marie

    I loved this episode! I am a lazy human who rents a house that happens to come with garden beds—my first house since childhood (I’m in my mid-30s). I wanted flowers, but I didn’t want a lot of weeding. So, my then-five-year-old and I learned lots about what native pollinators need, and we did our best to plant flowers that would bloom in three seasons. I got sick, completely neglected the garden, but we still have 5 foot tall amazing red flowers called Bee Balm! We also let our yard go pretty wild, but don’t tell the landlord… Our yard is greener than the neighbors with well-trimmed grass, though! I’m loving the beauty of wild and “weed” flowers and the winged creatures they feed.

  4. Betty

    Thank you for fun and interesting reporting, as always. I was surprised there was no mention of the Independence almond variety, which is a newer self-fertilizing variety that does not depend on bees to pollinate. I’d heard about it years ago and wonder what effect, if any, it’s had on the pollinating bee business.

  5. Hello,
    Thank you For a very interesting chapter. There is a fascinating startup company called ״BeeHero” which collects smart data from inside the hive and produce a real-time analytics regarding the hive status and whether it will be efficient pollinating. You can check them out here https://www.beehero.io/
    Sounds like a good sequel for this report!

    Love the show!

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