Grady Pierroz, Graduate Student, UC Berkeley
February 4, 2017
Let’s take a look at something that has been in the public consciousness for a while now: the bees are dying. Everybody knows the bees are dying. We are constantly barraged with terrifying headlines talking about the Beepocalypse or Beemaggeddon. This has been so overwrought to the point of becoming cliché, and has even been turned into an internet meme. We are shown really scary looking data, like this chart (Fig. 1) showing a clear decline in the total number of hives in the U.S. between 1946 and 2006. Statistics don’t lie, right? These sensational reports have even done us the favor of offering up a selection of boogie-men to blame this on, be they GMOs, neonicotinoid pesticides, or global warming. There has also been a fancy, frightening new name coined for what’s been going on: Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. This media narrative has methodically stamped a general feeling of dread and worry for the fate of honey bees upon our collective psyche, a feeling I never even considered might not be based in fact.
That’s why, when choosing a topic to research and present in a meeting for our CLEAR group (https://clear-project.org/), I chose to investigate the link between neonicotinoids and declining bee populations. Honestly, I thought it would be easy. I thought that after minimal research I would find some irrefutable evidence that neonics are bad; I would get to wag my finger at large agrochemical companies; and maybe even find a way to incorporate an Aldo Leopold quote somewhere.
So consider my shock when, after a considerable amount of time reading contradictory sources, I realized that the bees are not actually going extinct. For more in-depth analysis on this (and the sources for most of my figures), I would like to direct you to some insightful, well-researched pieces written by Jon Entine at the Genetic Literacy Project on this issue. But, basically, the U.S. bee population spiked during World War II because of sugar rationing and demand for beeswax to be used as a machine lubricant and waterproofing agent by the military (Fig 2). Bee populations then fell steadily until the mid-nineties, but they have remained relatively unchanged for the last twenty years (Fig. 3). Oh, and it turns out that Colony Collapse Disorder is just a new name for a phenomenon that has happened dozens of times since the nineteenth century. In the past it has been called mystery disease, disappearing disease, spring dwindle, May disease, autumn collapse, or fall dwindle disease, and it actually describes a set of symptoms observed in bees rather than being some sort of causal agent. Everyone take a deep breath, the bees are doing ok.
But this begs the question: why have we all been freaking out about the bees for the last decade? Well, it turns out that in 2007 there was a real scare. The (re)emergence of CCD caused some beekeepers to lose almost all of their bees, and they understandably raised the alarm. To be honest, CCD must have seemed like the end of the world to a beekeeper. Hives just disappeared. They didn’t die of some obvious disease; there weren’t bee corpses littered around their hives. Entire hives just flew away and never came back. It was scary, it was legitimate, and it was a damn good story.
That story just so happened to get TV ratings and sell publications (not to mention rake in Sierra Club donations). So, the media latched on and milked it for all it was worth. They even found some scary looking statistics like the ones mentioned above to support this narrative. And who is going to refute them, the beekeepers? Below is a graph showing the cost of professional pollination services offered by beekeepers, where they basically rent out hives to farmers to pollinate their crops (Fig. 4). You will notice a spike in price for the 2007 season, when CCD was first described. We now know that the bees aren’t dying, and their populations haven’t changed noticeably in twenty years. What do you think keeps the price of pollination services so high? It might be the ongoing media narrative that bees are on the brink of extinction.
Now, I’m not trying to insinuate that there is a nefarious, shadowy cabal of beekeepers keeping the world suppressed by spreading fake news that the bees are dying. To be fair, there are a host of serious challenges facing modern beekeeping. Crop monocultures, the Varroa mite and other pathogens, intense management practices, and probably also neonicotinoid pesticides are leading to huge bee die-offs every winter, making it harder and more expensive to build up healthy hives for next season. But, a hard-pushed narrative that the commodity you are selling is rapidly disappearing sure can’t hurt business. And, unless more publications like Forbes, or Slate do some actual investigative journalism, rather than echoing the same tired old clickbait from ten years ago, erroneous albeit shocking myths will continue to propagate themselves throughout our society.
We’ve all been hearing a lot about “fake news” recently, to the point where the term has lost all meaning and now seems to be thrown around as an attempt to discredit a story or idea someone doesn’t agree with. When Donald J. Trump (now President Trump) told a reporter from CNN, “You are fake news”, any semblance of unequivocal meaning was stripped from the phrase. Oftentimes, fake news is promoted by, or at least willfully ignored by, moneyed interests in order to increase revenue. This applies most obviously to oil companies and climate change, of course, but some small reflection of this is clearly going on here. This is compounded by similar sentiments felt by for-profit media institutions, who often choose the sensational story over the true one. Let’s be honest, would you be more likely to click on “Bee Populations Have Remained Steady for the Last Twenty Years” or “Beemaggeddon: Ten Reasons Why Bees Dying Mean You’re Dying Too”?
Often times, fake news boils down to laziness. Media outlets might be too lazy to do journalism with integrity and produce their own fact-based content, so they parrot some story published by another outlet. But fake news is mainly proliferated due to our own laziness as consumers of information. We want to be shocked by headlines. Hell, we rarely want to read anything past the headline, much less do a little research to substantiate the shocking claims we just saw blared across our Facebook feed. It’s a lot easier to hit the share button than read multiple sources reporting on the same event and think critically about the reasoning presented and come to your own conclusions. Let’s be honest, fake news isn’t just the media’s fault, or Russia’s fault, or your conservative-uncle-you-fight-with-every-Thanksgiving’s fault. It’s our fault for failing to investigate, failing to be skeptical and critical, and failing to demand the objective truth.
But hey, at least the bees aren’t dying.
 For more on this issue, please see: https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2015/03/23/usda-study-concludes-neonics-not-driving-bee-deaths-as-white-house-set-to-announce-bee-revival-plan/ , https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2016/05/18/science-news-release-media-miss-bee-extinction-reports/ , https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2016/07/28/beepocalypse-myth-handbook-dissecting-claims-of-pollinator-collapse/ , and https://www.geneticliteracyproject.org/2016/12/06/honeybees-not-crisis-beekeepers/