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The Buzz: What Bees Tell Us About Global Climate Change
June 2, 2010  |  by Sharon Tregaskis

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ANCHORED TO THE SOIL by their roots, plants can’t go out in search of the ideal mate—or any mate at all. To ensure that their gametes mix and match with others of their kind to perpetuate the species, they release pollen on the wind or, using a strategy that emerged more than 65 million years ago, deploy showy blooms and sweet nectar to recruit mobile helpmates. Bats, birds, and a wide range of insects seduced by color and scent transfer pollen as they brush up against stamens and pistils in the quest for a good meal. It’s an intricate dance cued by rainfall, daylight, and soil and air temperature throughout the year, contingent on the syncopated life cycles of plants and pollinators. The resulting seed bodies—everything from apples to zucchini—account for one-third of the modern American diet.

Bee1North America boasts 20,000 species of native insect pollinators, maybe more; nobody knows the precise figure. Maryland has more than 400 species of native bees—and while their ground-dwelling, solitary habits, often cranky disposition, and narrowly tailored symbiosis with individual plant species are perfectly attuned to a diverse native ecosystem, they’re a poor fit in an intensively managed, large-scale agricultural system. Enter Apis mellifera, transported to this continent in the mid-1600s by European colonists who relied on the docile, collaborative insects for the array of crops they pollinate, the relative ease of domestication, and the volume of sweet syrup they produce.

As the 20th century hit its midpoint, the honey bee hit the fast track. National farm policies driven by an emerging industrial food system promoted a “get big or get out” mindset. Farms consolidated, and to increase the efficiency of the massive machines required to work hundreds of acres, farmers eradicated hedgerows where native pollinators once thrived. Diversified family farms producing blooms—and food for pollinators—all season morphed into square miles planted with a single crop, blossoming en masse in a bloom-and-bust cycle ill-suited to the survival of pollinators. “It’s not that honey bees are necessarily better pollinators than other bees or insects,” says University of California, Riverside, entomologist P. Kirk Visscher. “It’s just that if you want a million of them to show up this week and be taken out two weeks later before you put on insecticide treatment that would kill them, it has to be honey bees because they’re portable and managed in large numbers.”Bee2

Today, hives loaded on tractor-trailers commute from California almond plantations to Florida orange groves and Maine blueberry barrens and everywhere in between, credited with a $14 billion contribution to the nation’s food production. The system hinges on a new syncopation: enough honey bees in the right place, at the right time to pollinate crops nationwide. This spring, as colony collapse was again credited with national honey bee losses of 30 percent and the inventory of robust hives dipped dangerously low, brokers flew in honey bees from overseas to stay ahead of demand.

RAISED ON A FAMILY farm at the northern edge of the Baltimore City limits, Esaias had a lifelong fascination with honey bees. But it took a bit of serendipity—and the fall of the Berlin Wall—to turn him into a beekeeper. Esaias was 43 when East and West Germans clambered atop the Wall in November 1989. Son Colin, then 11, was a Boy Scout. As diplomatic ties between the United States and Eastern Europe thawed, defense contractors living in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., started losing their jobs—among them, the assistant scoutmaster of Colin’s troop. At a troop meeting father and son attended just days before the leader’s departure, the man offered up his honey bees and the equipment to tend them. “We’ll take them,” piped up Colin, with a glance to his father. “Won’t we, Dad?”


6 Comments


  1. I must call the author out for failing to make the case that “climate change” (meaning the shift in seasonal weather patterns and temperature” are human created. It is poor scientific method to make such a largely unproven and plain out provocative conclusion (assumption) without proven facts. Sorry, but invasive species such as pythons, African bees and the the like, are not the same as a global temperature/seasonal shift. The influences of the sun and the orbit of the earth are not dependent, nor are they influenced by mans activity.
    I do not question the data points that are gathered, I question the assumption that the cause is man.

    Now if we talk environmental contamination having an influence upon the bees, then there is no question that man has had a significant influence. Keep your facts straight, your science free from politics, and your judgment impartial and objective.

    • William Feldman

      Where in the article does the author attribute climate change to human activity?

    • Sharon Tregaskis

      Wayne Esaias doesn’t claim that his data confirms anthropogenic climate change. In fact, he believes that the trend he’s begun documenting with his honey bees correlates to a trend of rising surface temperature in the Atlantic Ocean known as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation, which cycles on a period of about 70 years. With only 20 years of honey bee data, however, his hypothesis regarding the AMO remains an open question. There wasn’t room in this story to parse climate change, writ large, and shorter term meterological phenomena like the AMO and El Nino or tackle sophisticated statistical analyses.

      Even so, Esaias’s overarching claim — which elides the debate over the cause of climate change — still stands: Scientists have clearly and unequivocally documented ongoing changes in the climate. As a result of those changes, we can anticipate that the complex relationships among weather, pollinators, and terrestrial ecosystems will shift. Consequently, it would behoove us to investigate how those relationships work and begin to anticipate how climate change will affect the ecosystems on which we depend for food, fiber, and fuel.

  2. Let’s put aside the debate re: climate change/global warming to take a look at a glaringly obvious problem with this scenario; tractor trailer loads of beehives traveling the interstate highways to chase the pollination dollar, expecting a million bees to pollinate a crop that then gets sprayed with insecticide (how tiny would those masks have to be?), RoundUp Ready everything – corn, soybeans, alfalfa – has anybody wondered what happens to the bees who visit ‘native’ plants that get RoundUp either directly or via drift?
    Industrial Agriculture is an oxymoron and applying those principles to the awe-inspiring workhorse that Apis Mellifera is just reeks of self-centered manipulation.

  3. Michelle Howell

    Thank you Mr. Esaias for your work with the bees.

    Also, I concur with Mr. Gill regarding the issue of insecticides. He has a valid point!

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