Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham
Amidst the buzz of the Great British Bee Count, which is currently in full swing, a recent article in Geography Compass, by Watson and Stallins (2016), has looked at the process of knowledge production about honey bees, evaluating the various oppositional approaches to theorising honey bee decline. As animal geographers repeatedly reinforce, animals and plants are inextricably linked to human lives, the honey bee providing a good example of human-animal entanglement. By examining honey bee populations, it is also evident, as geographers have contended, that our attempts to define, categorise, and control the non-human are constantly defied by the contingent nature of the natural world. Human-insect and human-plant relationships, however, Watson and Stallins (2016) stress, have been neglected in geographical literature. It is, therefore, necessary to investigate the role of the ‘more-than-human’ in order to inform our use of anthropogenic spaces. In the example of the honey bee, it is vital that we understand the dynamics of bee populations in order to inform agricultural land-use, due to the implications for both agricultural sustainability and human health.
The western or European honey bee (Apis mellifera) is semi-domesticated, beekeeping being practised on a range of scales, from the hobby apiarist to industrial bee farmers. The honey bee, wild or otherwise, is an important constituent of our ecosystems, worldwide; it is the chief pollinator of more than a third of global produce, including many fruits, vegetables, nuts, and spices. In America, an estimated $12 billion of crop value is directly attributable to honey bees, generating $168 billion for the global economy (Watson and Stallins, 2016). Recent global decline in honey bee populations have variously been described as an ‘environmental crisis’, the ‘beepocalypse’, and a ‘planetary ethical catastrophe’ (Watson and Stallins, 2016). This has, therefore, caused concern in the media, as well as amongst the scientific community, agricultural businesses, and environmentalists.
In Britain alone, 20 species of bee have vanished entirely, and a further quarter are on the red list of threatened species (FoE, 2016a [online]). This concern about low bee numbers has led to the Great British Bee Count, an annual event which attempts to enlist the public in a national bee population survey. The campaign portrays the bee as our ‘friend’, as important to our ecosystems, and vital to the economy. The event, organised by Friends of the Earth, runs from May 19th to June 20th, and last year saw over 100,000 recorded sightings (FoE, 2016b [online]). However, surveys have indicated that only 33% of the British public can correctly identify the honey bee from a line-up of other bee species (FoE, 2016b [online])! It is, therefore, not surprising that environmentalists have got a bee in their bonnet about this subject.
Watson and Stallins’ (2016) article focuses on Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) – a little-understood cause of honey bee population decline – which has become sort of a ‘buzz word’ amongst scientists and agriculturalists. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), CCD is the formation of a ‘dead colony’, in which the queen is still alive but there are no adult bees to keep the colony going (USDA, 2016 [online]). Whilst scientists have yet to agree on a cause of CCD, there are many suggested factors, involving both human and non-human actors. Amongst the anthropogenic causes are neonicotinoids (pesticides), climate change, pollution, changes in demand for certain luxury crops, and land-use changes associated with intensification of monocultures for industrial agriculture. The more-than-human is also partly to blame for bee population decline; pathogens, pests, viruses, and predation by other insects also pose threats to our black and yellow friends. The latter has, in fact, been in the news of late, the arrival of Asian hornets in Britain threatening bee populations (Boyle, 2016 [online]). A perhaps more discrete migrant than the people of Kent, Surrey, Sussex, and Devon were expecting, the hornets, originally from the Far East, have made their way over from France. They can eat up to 50 honey bees per day, and are also potentially deadly to humans, causing both DEFRA and the National Bee Unit to express a desire for the hornets to buzz off (Boyle, 2016 [online]).
Knowledge about honey bee population decline, Watson and Stallins (2016) state, is produced by scientists, the agricultural industry, environmentalists, and the media. They identify three ‘narratives’ or claims made about the causes of CCD, which work in opposition to each other. The first approach, the “Ecological Conservation Narrative”, stresses the causal primacy of the influence of industrial agriculture causing the proliferation of monocultures at the expense of vegetation diversity. The second approach, the “Reductionist Regulatory Narrative”, prioritises isolating the main cause – which it claims is the use of pesticides – over any historical analysis, or use of historical trends to predict future populations. The third and final narrative is the “Socioecological Complexity Narrative”, which recognises the complex combination of social and ecological causes. Watson and Stallins (2016), advocate a pluralistic approach that combines all three narratives and recognises the continuum of social and ecological causality of bee population decline. It is also, they argue, important to be sensitive to variations over space and time; it is impossible to have a rigid approach to such a fluid and complex ecological phenomenon.
It is hard to understand the sheer importance of honey bees to our ecosystems and economies, these tiny little creatures appearing so mundane in our day-to-day encounters with nature. They really are busy little bees, more so than they are often given credit for, and they are so closely intertwined with our lives that it would be a real cause for concern if the ‘beepocalypse’ was to become a reality.
Boyle, D. (2016). “Deadly Asian Hornets that devour bees and can kill humans arrive”, The Telegraph Online, 18th May, 2016. Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/05/18/deadly-asian-hornets-that-devour-bees-and-can-kill-humans-arrive/
FoE, (2016a). “About the Great British Bee Count”, Friends of the Earth. Available at: https://www.foe.co.uk/page/great-british-bee-count-about
FoE, (2016b). “Get involved with the Great British Bee Count”, 19th May, 2016. Available at: http://blueandgreentomorrow.com/2016/05/19/get-involved-great-british-bee-count/
USDA, (2016). “ARS Honey Bee Health and Colony Collapse Disorder”, United States Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service. Available at: http://www.ars.usda.gov/News/docs.htm?docid=15572