The Buzz Beyond Bees

This is a repost of an article I originally wrote for the Agroecology and Rural Economies Reserach Corps blog, Seed & Hatchet.

The bees are dying.

This message has been spread far and wide over the course of the past decade, from the covers of national magazines to (sometimes misguided) corporate marketing campaigns. It’s a snappy soundbite that alerts the public to a real problem pertaining to how we produce food and strive to coexist with other species.

But when it comes to insects and their importance to humans, bees are only part of the story.

By fixating on these familiar pollinators, what if we’re not only forgetting the vital roles that other species play, but actively hindering the development of more sustainable agricultural knowledge and practice?

The rise (and fall) of bees

Bees have become the charismatic megafauna of the insect world.  From memes, movies, memes about movies, and various other media, bees have become a ubiquitous fixture of popular culture, especially in the United States.

This period of widespread public captivation has coincided with an observed decline in bee populations. Around 2007, the same year The Bee Movie was released, beekeepers began reporting the mysterious disappearance of up to 90% of their honey bee colonies’ workers.

This was the beginning of what has come to be known as “Colony Collapse Disorder,” a phenomena that quickly caught on to become the subject of countless scientific studies and popular articles.

At the same time, entomologists began reporting that it wasn’t just honey bees that were in trouble. Research was beginning to show that wild bees, too, were declining globally. Since then the alarm bells have only gotten louder as public and scientific attention collide, amplifying the plight of the bees to an ear-splitting volume.

Such widespread, high-level concern isn’t necessarily unwarranted—bees, especially wild ones, are incredibly effective and efficient pollinators, providing a vital service to global fruit and vegetable production as well as natural ecosystems.

But there are some glaring problems with this melittologicalmyopia.

For one, the focus on Colony Collapse Disorder obscures that honey bees are managed livestock whose populations have actually increased in recent years. In fact, some researchers argue that honey bee-centric conservation may be actively harmful to wildlife, since honey bees often compete with native species for floral resources and even transmit viral diseases.

And while wild bees are still in danger, they aren’t the only important insect pollinators.

A 2016 study synthesizing data from seventeen different cropping systems around the world found that although flies, wasps, beetles, and butterflies were not as effective as bees on a per-visit basis, they visited flowers about twice as often, making their contribution to pollination just as important.

Finally, although it’s true that pollinators make our food supply more nutritious, delicious, and diverse, the vast majority of staple crops don’t need them. Contrary to the frequently cited statistic that one-in-three bites of food depends on bees, the real number is probably closer to one-in-ten.

Not just pests and pollinators

None of this is to say that bees aren’t important, but their privileged status in insect conservation is having vexing consequences.

Entomologists from University College London recently analyzed survey data from over 700 people in 46 countries to find out why we love bees and hate wasps.

They showed that wasps were much more likely to be associated with negative words and feelings than bees, corresponding to a lack of knowledge about the beneficial functions of wasps. In the study, almost all survey respondents understood the ecological role of bees as pollinators, but few knew that wasps are predators of many insects that we consider pests.

These ecosystem services, known as “biological control,” is much more poorly studied than pollination but arguably more valuable.

Estimates have placed the annual value of native pest control by wild natural enemies at $4.5 billion in the U.S. alone, compared to $3 billion for wild pollination services. Biological control agents include predators like lady beetles, which consume their prey directly, as well as tiny parasitic flies and wasps that lay their eggs inside other insect species so their babies can eat the host alive from the inside, Alien-style.

On top of biological pest control, insects play a crucial role in building and maintaining healthy soils. Tunneling taxa like ants and termites contribute to soil structure and porosity, increasing aeration, nutrient retention, and water holding capacity. Their presence in soil has been linked to substantially increased crop yields in arid agroecosystems, suggesting a role as potential buffer against climate change.

Other unassuming groups, including springtails, blowflies, and rove beetles, are the first responders in nature’s clean-up crew.

These detritivores physically and chemically break down waste and dead plant and animal tissues, readying them for further decomposition by bacteria and fungi. While such species often repulse people due to their association with rot, without them large amounts of key nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorous would be inaccessible to plants.

Scarab or dung beetles in particular process vast quantities of feces produced by animal agriculture. By burying dung, these industrious beetles not only accelerate decomposition, but also prevent cattle parasites and pest flies. Their presence, including here in the Midwest, has even been linked to decreased occurrence of foodborne human pathogens on biodiverse farms.

These varied and vital services tend to go under-appreciated by the public, and under-researched by scientists.

The University College London study found that since 1980, there have been over twice as many scientific journal articles published on bees as wasps, despite there being three times fewer species of bees. When limited to just articles focusing on ecosystem services, the disparity increased to forty-fold. This is to say nothing of the various insect groups outside the taxonomic order Hymenoptera,which groups bees, wasps, and ants.

The researchers posit that the parallel disdain for most insects in both the academic and public spheres constitutes a vicious cycle wherein some groups, like bees, get increasingly prioritized while others get ignored. That creates problems for how we value nature and manage our landscapes, with potentially dire consequences.

The war on bugs

Aside from a select few groups like bees, butterflies, and lady beetles privileged enough to earn widespread public adoration, most people think insects are icky.

While part of this disgust might have to do with innate psychological mechanisms around avoiding personal harm, the varied ways that different cultures value and interact with insects around the world belies this explanation.

Perhaps more important are the environmental, social, and economic forces that shape how we interact with the non-human world.

During and after World War II, U.S. chemical manufacturers were looking for new markets for the products that had helped lined their pockets during the war. The development of neurotoxins for chemical warfare and the successful use of such compounds to combat insect-borne diseases abroad had created the technology and infrastructure for a powerful insecticide industry at home.

Companies and government agencies encouraged the adoption of broad-spectrum insecticides like DDT in suburban household and rural farm fields to protect public health and shore up agricultural productivity. Bugs were a menace, insecticides were “magic,” and chemical companies were “holding the line” against the enemy, profiting handsomely.

Despite warnings, this militarized mentality still dominates today. Most insects are indiscriminately presumed to be enemies of human well-being, new weapons are continuously developed, and the economically damaging insects we call “pests,” which constitute less than 1% of species, evolve a way to fight back. The war rages on, with no end in site.

In other respects, however, the war on insects has been a global success.

An increasing body of evidence shows that it’s not just the bees that are dying—we’re facing an insect apocalypse (or Armageddon). In addition to widespread pesticide use, habitat loss and climate change have taken their toll from Germany to Puerto Rico, where insect biomass in sampled nature reserves is less than half of what it was just a few decades prior.

Although evidence is still patchy, and there remain calls for caution,the rampant pesticide use and landscape simplification associated with industrial agriculture appear largely to blame for declines in the populations that we have data for.

This has serious implications for the health and stability of natural ecosystems, but for human-modified ones too.

The few insect species we consider pests already manage to thrive in highly-disturbed, chemically intensified landscapes. The forces driving declines aren’t going to do much good in eliminating these species, but also often stifle the ecosystem services that thousands of other insect species provide.

In praise of insect diversity

Attention on global bee declines has generated valuable awareness about the interdependence of humans and the rest of the natural world, as well as the inhospitable conditions that we often create for other species.

Indeed, bee-focused concerns have spurred notable policy interventions, such as the Obama administration’s funding for pollinator research and habitat conservation in the U.S. and a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides in the EU.

Such initiatives certainly have positive implications for non-bee insects as well. But a piecemeal approach that values a small subset of species above all others is unlikely to succeed in the ecological long run. Such efforts concentrate resources in a narrow issue area, failing to maximize potential benefits for farmers and consumers alike.

Bees as a group have a relatively limited set of environmental needs when compared with the astonishingly diverse habitat preferences, life histories, and food requirements in the rest of the insect world.

By tailoring policy and practice to bees, many species go unaided and potentially harmed. Indeed, the dearth of research on most non-bee insects means that we don’t even know what we’re missing. To close the knowledge gap and adequately address insect declines, more research efforts needs to be directed toward the ecology of non-bees.

Pollination is just one service among many that insects can provide to agriculture. By letting bees and pollination monopolize our efforts, we’re losing out on various pest control and nutrient benefits that healthy insect communities could contribute to well-designed, agroecological farming systems.

To successfully grapple with the insect apocalypse, we can’t just choose a single charismatic mascot to rally us toward a Pyrrhic victory.

We need a fundamental shift in how we perceive and value insects. They’re not a predominantly pesky group with a few good guys. They’re a diverse collection of partners who, while taking on their own ecological roles, work together to co-produce our shared world.