Telling the Bees
In the nineteenth century, it was believed that if a household caring for a bee colony failed to tap their key on the hive and tell the bees about major events in their lives, the bees would leave, die, or stop producing honey.  This cautionary tale of neglect, highlights the interdependence of the human’s and the bee’s wellbeing. Mike Hulme, a professor for human geography, argues that understanding the existence of such a personal and emotional connection to an environmental subject is key in shaping our perception of the issue and consequent actions. 
However, this relationship of emotional care appears to have been forgotten. Since 1940, the number of bee colonies in the United States has halved from 5 million to ca. 2.5 million.  The phenomenon behind these hive losses is called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
This blog entry will give a brief overview of CCD, its causes and consequences, how it is being addressed, and what you can do to help.
What Is Colony Collapse Disorder?
The term Colony Collapse Disorder is commonly associated with the mass disappearance (and in most cases death) of a hive’s worker bees, leaving their queen, young bees, larvae, and their nurse bees behind. The first documented case attributed to this phenomenon was recorded in 2006 by a professional beekeeper from Pennsylvania, US.  After initial disagreement over the causes of CCD, the scientific community reached a consensus in the early 2010s identifying six interconnected drivers of CCD (see table The Six P’s of Colony Collapse Disorder). [7,8] While parasites, pests and pathogens harm the bees themselves, the pesticides used to treat these, and other unwanted organisms, are also detrimental to bees’ health. The threat to smaller bee hives is even bigger as researchers have found a direct correlation between a hive’s level of genetic diversity and its chances of survival. In addition, human activity generally amplifies the above factors, be it through the stress inflicted on commercial hives as they are being transported, the use of pesticides, monocultures, habitat loss, climate change, or consumption patterns.
The Six P’s of Colony Collapse Disorder
Parasites & Pests
Acarapis Woodi or Varroa Destructor are mites that feed off their hosts’ bodily fluids and spread viruses. These parasites can weaken bees significantly and even cause birth defects.
Bees are often inadvertently affected by the pesticides, particularly neonicotinoids (neonics), used in the agricultural sector to deter unwanted insects and plants. Neonics are “the most widely used insecticides in the world”.  Bees that come in contact with these substances often lose their ability to find their way back to the hive as neonics attack their nervous systems, leading to “convulsion, paralysis and death”. 
Bacterial diseases, such as American foulbrood, often target the hive’s young bees by feeding on the larvae in the combs turning them into liquid. 
The colony’s queen ability to mate with as many regular bees (drones) as possible is directly related to the hive’s chances of survival.  This concept is often referred to as genetic diversity. 
Humans influence a number of factors contributing to CCD:
Human beings inflict additional stress on commercial hives as they are transported often and over long distances to pollinate various crops.
Why Should We Care?
Pollination: It’s Nuts
According to the Natural Resources Defence Council (NRDC), “at least 30 percent of the world’s crops [meaning “Every third bite of food you take”] and 90 percent of our wild plants” are pollinated by bees. [15, 16] They pollinate approximately $ 265 billion worth of crops per year, making commercial bee hives worth more than their average weight in gold.  The Californian almond industry alone (producing ca. “80 % of the world’s almonds”) is expected to lose $ 83 million yearly due to CCD, as pollination fees rise since beekeepers have to compensate for larger hive losses. 
The disappearance of the bees is often portrayed as the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” signalling species loss, with some regions already adapting to the bees’ disappearance, i.e. the Arctic, where flies are acting as pollinators. [18, 19] Aside from CCD’s detrimental financial consequences, bees are essential to our ecosystem – without them a great number of species, including humans, would be harmed and some even eradicated.  This is particularly upsetting in view of the WWF’s most recent Living Planet Report detailing that “between 1970 and 2014” the earth’s animal population dropped by 60 percent. 
Will we let bees be next?
What is Being Done?
Regulatory (In)Action & Creating Awareness
A number of countries, including the UK, US, Canada, Germany and Australia, and international institutions, such as the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), have responded to the threat of CCD by launching investigations into the disappearance of pollinators. [16, 20, 21, 22] These inquiries are often the product of international collaborations, as illustrated by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services’ (IPBES) report on Pollinators, Pollination and Food Production, which cautions policymakers to pay attention to “the lethal and sub-lethal effects of pesticides […] on wild and managed bees”.  Peter Haas, a professor of political science, argues that the collective scientific knowledge generated by this community of experts and professionals—what he refers to as an epistemic community —shapes national interests. 
Overall, collective (national) action has mainly been confined to the realm of research and education with information campaigns from governments, international institutions, NGOs, non-profits and corporations advocating for bee-friendly flowers. [19, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30, 31] Michael Maniates, a professor of social sciences, criticises such DIY problem solving approaches arguing that these a) shift responsibility away from governments and corporations to individuals and b) fail to address the root causes of the issue.
While planting flowers to create bee habitats and diversified diets is important, these initiatives do not address the larger problems of pesticide usage and climate change. Here, the EU stands out as a positive example, having banned a number of neonics (pesticides) as well as launching the EU Pollinators Initiative in June of 2018 setting action targets for itself and its member countries.[20, 21, 25]
What makes people care?
Mike Hulme argues that our perception of scientific phenomena, especially those posing a danger to ourselves, are defined by our personal experience and emotions.  Thus, personal histories and scientific knowledge are intertwined in shaping our understanding of a problem, which in turn effects our response to it. Going back to the cautionary tale of telling the bees, the scientifically proven interconnectedness of bee keepers’ and their hives’ well-being are highlighted through the emotionally coded practice of ‘telling the bees’. In other words, personal connections and stories lead people to emotionally invest in an issue causing them to care about it and attempt to find ways of improving or even solving it. In ‘telling the bees’, the bee keepers form an emotional connection to their bee hives which in turn inspires them to take (better) care of them.
What Can I Do?
- Get involved in your local community and support organizations fighting CCD & related causes, such as the International Bee Research Association
- Use your vote – research candidates’ and parties’ stances and records on environmental issues
- Educate yourself and others (good news – by reading this blog entry you already took the first step)
- For audio-visual learners, check out these explanatoryvideos by Kurzgesagt – In A Nutshell and It’s Okay To Be Smart (PBS)
- For a literary empathy exercise for the victims of and contributors to CCD, read Maja Lunde’s The History of Bees
- Teach children about CCD, i.e. by reading Robbie Shell’s Bees on the Roof
- Find an exhibit at a public garden or museum near you
- Plant bee-friendly flowers – flower power isn’t enough to mitigate the effects of CCD but it’s a good place to start and a great conversation starter to spread the word and teach others
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- The report also called for further research regarding the effects of genetically modified (GM) crops on pollinators.
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