Save the bees, but maybe not this way


I’m all for saving bees. Heck they’re some of the most important players in the plant systems I study. No bees means no sex for my plants, so there’s that. And I generally have a soft spot for bees. While I was an undergraduate my first real experience in research was working in Mark Winston’s bee lab. I was one of those all round research assistants who moved between projects as the need arose. It was a great experience and the fact that I’m still doing research speaks to that. Maybe it is why I have gone on to study mainly bee-pollinated plants but that is speculation for another day.

So when a few weeks ago I saw a new campaign at to save the bees, my first thought was: great! It is nice to see an important ecological question gaining attention and donations. But then I read on.

Although I am aware that many ecological issues are political ones, the Avaaz campaign demonstrates how complex issues can lose out when they are made political. Of course it is easy to sell simple ideas and I’m also all for communicating science in ways that everyone can understand. However, much is lost if you translate things down to easily digested political selling points.

So here is what I find distasteful about this campaign to save the bees. First there is the message that we need to fight ‘big pharma’ to stop the use/over-use of pesticides. Now, although you could argue lots of things about whether it is right or wrong/effective or not to stop pesticide use, as a political message I don’t think there is anything wrong with this idea per se. However, the drive suggests that this action will save the bees. By using bees to sell the fund-raiser, a direct link is made between global bee declines (‘environmental holocaust’ as they put it) and pesticides. Now before anyone jumps at this, I am aware that there are lots of studies out there that do show negative effects of pesticides for bees. Back in that summer working with bees, I helped one grad student maintaining bees for her study that showed sub-lethal behavioural effects of pesticides. I’ll admit that I’m not up on this set of literature but I am fairly certain that most scientists wouldn’t leap to the conclusion that all that we need to do is get rid of pesticides and the world will be buzzing again. What is happening with bee populations world-wide and the domesticated honeybee are complex issues, unlikely to be so simply solved.

The second problem I had reading the Avaaz page was their second mission is to raise funds for a scientific study. As stated on the page: “Avaaz may be the only crowdsourced funding model in the world able to raise enough to fund the world’s first large scale, grass-roots supported, totally independent study of what’s killing our bees, that decisively challenges the junk science of big pharma.” (emphasis theirs). And to top it off: “The need is urgent, and if we can’t do this, it’s not clear who can.”

As a scientist, I find this completely offensive. There is so much wrong with this call, I’m not sure where to start. On the one-hand they suggest that the research being done now is ‘junk science’ funded by big pharma. It almost seems silly to write a counter-argument to this, there are scientists all over the world studying bees and many directly trying to address things like how pesticides affect bees. That grad student I helped out? Funded by ‘big pharma’. Even if we accept the hypothesis that science on bee declines, pesticide effects, etc has been ‘junk’, where are they going to find the apparently reputable scientists that will carry out the research to solve the problem once and for all? Who are these scientists? Maybe it is just me but if I was going to give my money for research, I’d want to know who it was going to, especially if they’re expected to deliver on the promise of this campaign. For me the portrayal of scientists as both the bad guys in the back pocket of pharmaceutical companies and the heroes coming in to save the day is both offensive and depressing.

But let’s say the money raised here would be able to solve what is happening to ‘the bees’. Even if that is true, raising money for science is in conflict with the first mission of the campaign. Either you are searching for the answer for what is really happening or you have already concluded that bees are dying due to pesticides. You can’t have it both ways. And beyond the issue of actually understanding why bees may be declining, there are already many scientists addressing these problems from a myriad of angles. For something so complex, it is highly unlikely that any one single study will ever be able to determine what is killing the bees like promised here. Science is generally a collaborative effort and the portrayal of science here suggests a poor grasp of how it is done.

So far I have been intentionally vague about what I mean by ‘bees’ because Avaaz is as well. But I see this as another real problem in distilling down such a broad subject down to a single political issue. For example, the fact the in North America (and elsewhere) honeybees are an introduce farm-animal is often glossed over. Of course, understanding colony collapse and other problems facing honeybees is important; honeybees can be critical domestic animals that provide a huge service in our food production. However, understanding issues with honeybees may or may not provide any answers to our understanding of wild bees. It would be like studying cows to try to understand deer populations or chickens to assess songbirds. Sure there may be links but they are different beasts. So confounding honeybees with bees as a whole is problematic.

So in short, I’d love to see more emphasis on understanding ecological problems and see interest in pollinators as a real positive. So much of our world depends on the interactions between plants and pollinators but reducing complex ecological questions down to single-issue conspiracy theory campaigns may do more harm than good in the long run. It also belittles all the great science that is already going on.

Update (April 23): Jeff Ollerton has added his thoughts over on his blog: and there are a bunch of great comments below. All worth a read!


18 thoughts on “Save the bees, but maybe not this way

  1. I completely agree. I often get sent links to groups that are trying to “stop pesticides from killing bees”, and I typically respond to the sender by sending them a link on how they can turn their backyard into a sanctuary for native pollinators, or how they can help native pollinators on a local level in general. I’m seeing more and more of those sites popping up (one popped up in my FB newsfeed this morning), and they typically have really useful and practical information. So, I guess my solution to this issue is to redirect the conversation from “Here is this unknown group of people that I can send my money to and they’ll save the bees… somehow” to “Here are a few simple things I can do in my own backyard to make a significant improvement on the native pollinators in my area.” :) Thanks for the write-up!

  2. I’ll also point out that pesticides are mostly manufactured by the agrochemical industry, not “big pharma”. At least get the right bogeyman!

  3. Great point about the confusion between honey bees and native bees. RMBL has hosted a ton of research on native bees, in part because historically the surrounding environs have been cold enough that the honey bee hasn’t taken off without being fed by humans. We’ve got a native bee community essentially unimpacted by honeybees. Indeed, it seems, though we are not certain, that at least one bombus species (occidentalis) is doing fine locally despite regional declines in part because of the absence of honeybees (and probably the associated pathogens). A local land trust and local food nonprofit introduced honeybees, justifying it in part as “saving the bees” (hopefully local temperatures haven’t climbed enough that the honeybee can survive on its own). The organizations were very receptive when we approached them, but it took a lot of work to help them understand that saving the bees didn’t necessarily involve introducing a non-native organism. Their confusion was quite understandable given how much of the coverage about bee declines has failed to clarify the role between non-native and native bees.

  4. Yes, thank you for this Amy. I’d like to add something to what Ian Billick at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory (RMBL) said. It’s only recently come home to me, after studying pollination for many years, that a common public perception is that all pollinators are bees and all bees are honey bees. The truth of course is that we share the planet with many species of bees (some 20,000 species formally described by scientists, more surely not yet described) and with many other important insect pollinators–especially many moths, butterflies, hovering flies, other types of flies, and beetles, not to mention birds, bats, and other animals). Indeed, it is news to most people that the great majority of these different species of bees are NOT social. And it certainly is news that honey bees can harm native bees by competing for the food that all of them obtain from flowers (nectar and pollen) and by transmitting diseases to them. It’s an uphill battle to educate folks about the true nature of ecological systems, but we have to try.

    • The one summer I got to do some exploratory work at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory was truly magical. It was amazing to be in such a beautiful place (most of my research seems to be in ditches and old fields…) but it was also truly eye opening to see for myself the landscape where so much of the science I was reading was done.

      As for misinformation about pollinators, I think we have our work cut out for us but I am inspired by all the dedicated scientists out there studying them and trying to educate indeed! Thanks for Ian and Nicolas for your additional thoughts.

  5. Hi Amy – as I’m sure you know, I completely agree with you on this topic. One of the things that worries me is that over-emphasis on pesticides as a single issue deflects attention from other factors which are at least as important, such as habitat loss. We have a manuscript in prep. at the moment showing that native bee and flower-visiting wasp extinctions in Britain began in the mid-19th century and reached their highest rate during the period 1929-1959, during a time of rapid agricultural intensification (but pre-neonicotinoids). It is an issue that has deep roots and some crappy campaign such as this will do nothing and has no scientific basis.

    In actual fact, although wild bee diversity is declining in the UK, overall abundance seems to be stable as some species are doing extremely well, including a new natural colonist, Bombus hypnorum which is spreading fast and is locally common. There’s no evidence (yet) of a decline in crop production as honey bees only account for about 30% of that pollination. But clearly greater diversity provides us with future insurance against losses of other species.

    As for positive things that can be done for pollinator populations by every citizen, there’s some ideas in a recent post of mine:

  6. Thanks for flagging this up, I wasnt aware of the Avaaz campaign. I was shocked by the emotive language and the errors in the Avaaz blurb. I cant see how they are going to commission research on bees in a reputable and trustworthy manner. As you say there are a lot of independent academic scientists doing excellent work on bees although they could always do with more government suppport.
    I agree with all that you say about this being multifactorial and I believe that many of the problems facing bees could be helped if farmers gave up some land to plant wild flower plots to compensate for habitat loss. I do, however, think the case against neonics is mounting (see but I still see the neonics as being only part of the matrix.

  7. One important factor that most “save the bee” campaigns ignore is the impact of parasites and other pathogens on honey bees. This is a huge problem, probably bigger than exposure to pesticides. The current industrialized pollination practices that require movement of hives by the million, not to mention movement of queens and nucs, are responsible for the continued transmission of honey bee pests.

    It astonishes to me how some beekeepers refuse to accept this fact. I have heard some say “the infections would have arrived sooner or later, regardless of migratory hives” or “when the bees get back their natural habitat and if we can ban pesticides the industrial pollination will no longer be needed.” They resent quarantines and remain blind to the evidence about introduction of honey bee pests.

    We can be sure that the intended research doesn’t plan to include any of this. And, oh, yes. It will only apply to “the bee” meaning the honey bee.

    • Thanks for bringing up parasites and pathogens. I didn’t explore all the complexities to bee declines in the original post, in part because I don’t feel qualified to give a concise outlook on the state of the science. It is great to have others chime in though!

  8. If it wasn’t for firms like Bayer producing miticides to control varroa we probably wouldn’t have any honeybees to worry about. Although the mites eventually became resistant, it did provide a breathing space during which other options (like integrated pest management) could be developed.

    • Ironic, isn’t it? I am sure the sponsors of this fundraising would be at a loss about this information because they are so set against pesticides.

      Aside from this, using miticides to solve the problem also oversimplifies the issues. It is the quick response, but not the best one. There are some honey bee breeds from East Africa and Russia which are more resistant to varroa mite. Genetic selection for the best genotypes would be more productive in the long run than reaching out for a pesticide. It is “Quick Henry, the Flit!” all over again.

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