Bees are dying in record numbers. Why? And what are we doing to stop it?
FORTUNE — We need bees. You like apples? Almonds? Onions? How about blueberries or cherries or, heck, any flowering fruit out there — to get the fruit you need the flower pollinated; and to pollinate, nothing beats a honeybee. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that a quarter of our diet depends on honeybees’ pollination prowess.
We need bees, and bees are dying en masse, have been since about 2005, when a phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) was first given a name. We named the result without knowing its cause. Curing CCD has proven extremely complex, the ailment seems as knotty as interconnected as the industry the bees serve. As Andrew Coté, co-founder of New York City Beekeepers, told me years ago, “Asking to explain what causes CCD is like asking what causes poverty.”
So we need bees because, without them, we wouldn’t have all these foods we love; and right now, with fewer of them, the foods we love are going to cost more. We have only some vague notions of what it is that could be killing them off so quickly, and all possible causes — bad nutrition, pesticides, an itinerant lifestyle that’s full of unnatural stresses — point to the very system of which they are a central part. Hives, like the agriculture industry, are such complex, tightly organized systems that if a few bees fall unwell the whole structure might fall apart. As Dave Hackenburg, who runs an industrial pollination services company in Pennsylvania, says, “If you start shortening lives of bees, just by a few days, young bees have to go to the field earlier, and the whole thing gets messed up.”
MORE: The bee business
Hackenburg is careful about where he sends his bees and won’t let them near corn crops because “if there’s contaminants, they’re bringing it home.” Corn, and plenty of other crops, use pesticides with chemicals known as neonicotinoids (they affect neurons, and are similar to nicotine). Neonicotinoids are one of the most widely used classes of pesticide in the world. Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency was sued by a coalition of beekeepers, as well as representatives from the Sierra Club, the Center for Environmental Health, and the Center for Food Safety, for failing to protect bees by approving neonicotinoids without proper review. A proposed ban on the insecticides went before the European Union last week but was postponed because England and Germany, among other nations, abstained from voting. Bayer CropScience, the giant German-based company, is among the largest producers of neonicotinoid-based pesticides in the world.
Dan Cummings, a California almond farmer who also keeps bees, says some keepers are losing up to 70% of their population. Cummings is working with honeybee researchers to try and identify all the pathogens bees bring back into the hive. “We as an industry have eliminated all single-cause agents, so we’ve learned a lot, but it’s become more mysterious. It seems,” he continues, “to be highly correlated with nutrition. The bees that have better forage, a more diverse diet, are more resilient.” Cummings is now working on just what that supplemental diet should be. “The bees’ diet today is poorer than it’s ever been,” he says.
Along his own fence lines, in areas that aren’t farmed, he favors native plants like coyote bush. “Honeybees go out and make wonderful pollen out of coyote bush,” Cummings says. Plus, the plant serves as home to parasitic wasps, which sound nasty but prey on mites, which infest and can kill off bee colonies. He’s planning hedge barriers to keep sprays from drifting, sweetclovers and bluebells that get mixed into the bee diet. Sure, the hedgerows are attractive, he says, but they’re there for the bees.