This is our life with bees, and this
is our life without bees.
Bees are the most important
pollinators of our fruits and vegetables and flowers and crops
like alfalfa hay that feed our farm animals. More than one third
of the world's crop production is dependent on bee pollination.
But the ironic thing is that bees are not out there pollinating
our food intentionally. They're out there because they need to
eat. Bees get all of the protein they need in their diet from
pollen and all of the carbohydrates they need from nectar.
They're flower-feeders, and as they move from flower to flower,
basically on a shopping trip at the local floral mart, they end
up providing this valuable pollination service.
In parts of the
world where there are no bees, or where they plant varieties
that are not attractive to bees, people are paid to do the
business of pollination by hand.
These people are moving pollen
from flower to flower with a paintbrush. Now this business of
hand pollination is actually not that uncommon.
often pollinate their tomato flowers with a hand-held vibrator.
Now this one's the tomato tickler. (Laughter) Now this is
because the pollen within a tomato flower is held very securely
within the male part of the flower, the anther, and the only way
to release this pollen is to vibrate it.
So bumblebees are one
of the few kinds of bees in the world that are able to hold onto
the flower and vibrate it, and they do this by shaking their
flight muscles at a frequency similar to the
musical note 'C'.
they vibrate the flower, they
sonicate it, and that releases the
pollen in this efficient swoosh, and the pollen gathers all over
the fuzzy bee's body, and she takes it home as food. Tomato
growers now put bumblebee colonies inside the greenhouse to
pollinate the tomatoes because they get much more efficient
pollination when it's done naturally and they get better quality
So there's other, maybe more personal reasons, to care about
bees. There's over 20,000 species of bees in the world, and
they're absolutely gorgeous.
These bees spend the majority of
their life cycle hidden in the ground or within a hollow stem
and very few of these beautiful species have evolved highly
social behavior like honeybees.
Now honeybees tend to be the charismatic representative for the
other 19,900-plus species because there's something about
honeybees that draws people into their world. Humans have been
drawn to honeybees since early recorded history, mostly to
harvest their honey, which is an amazing natural sweetener.
I got drawn into the honeybee world completely by a fluke.
18 years old and bored, and I picked up a book in the library on
bees and I spent the night reading it. I had never thought about
insects living in complex societies. It was like the best of
science fiction come true.
And even stranger, there were these
people, these beekeepers, that loved their bees like they were
family, and when I put down the book, I knew I had to see this
for myself. So I went to work for a commercial beekeeper, a
family that owned 2,000 hives of bees in New Mexico.
And I was
Honeybees can be considered a super-organism, where the colony
is the organism and it's comprised of 40,000 to 50,000
individual bee organisms. Now this society has no central
authority. Nobody's in charge. So how they come to collective
decisions, and how they allocate their tasks and divide their
labor, how they communicate where the flowers are, all of their
collective social behaviors are mindblowing.
favorite, and one that I've studied for many years, is their
system of healthcare. So bees have social healthcare. So in my
lab, we study how bees keep themselves healthy.
For example, we
study hygiene, where some bees are able to locate and weed out
sick individuals from the nest, from the colony, and it keeps
the colony healthy. And more recently, we've been studying
resins that bees collect from plants.
So bees fly to some plants
and they scrape these very, very sticky resins off the leaves,
and they take them back to the nest where they cement them into
the nest architecture where we call it
that propolis is a natural disinfectant. It's a natural
antibiotic. It kills off bacteria and molds and other germs
within the colony, and so it bolsters the colony health and
their social immunity. Humans have known about the power of
propolis since biblical times. We've been harvesting propolis
out of bee colonies for human medicine, but we didn't know how
good it was for the bees.
So honeybees have these remarkable
natural defenses that have kept them healthy and thriving for
over 50 million years.
So seven years ago, when honeybee colonies were reported to be
dying en masse, first in the United States, it was clear that
there was something really, really wrong. In our collective
conscience, in a really primal way, we know we can't afford to
So what's going on? Bees are dying from multiple and
interacting causes, and I'll go through each of these. The
bottom line is, bees dying reflects a flowerless landscape and a
dysfunctional food system.
Now we have the best data on honeybees, so I'll use them as an
example. In the United States, bees in fact have been in decline
since World War II. We have half the number of managed hives in
the United States now compared to 1945.
We're down to about two
million hives of bees, we think.
And the reason is, after World
War II, we changed our farming practices. We stopped planting
cover crops. We stopped planting clover and alfalfa, which are
natural fertilizers that fix nitrogen in the soil, and instead
we started using synthetic fertilizers. Clover and alfalfa are
highly nutritious food plants for bees.
And after World War II,
we started using herbicides to kill off the weeds in our farms.
Many of these weeds are flowering plants that bees require for
their survival. And we started growing larger and larger crop
Now we talk about food deserts, places in our
cities, neighborhoods that have no grocery stores. The very
farms that used to sustain bees are now agricultural food
deserts, dominated by one or two plant species like corn and
Since World War II, we have been systematically
eliminating many of the flowering plants that bees need for
their survival. And these monocultures extend even to crops that
are good for bees, like almonds.
Fifty years ago, beekeepers
would take a few colonies, hives of bees into the almond
orchards, for pollination, and also because the pollen in an
almond blossom is really high in protein. It's really good for
Now, the scale of almond monoculture demands that most of
our nation's bees, over 1.5 million hives of bees, be
transported across the nation to pollinate this one crop. And
they're trucked in in semi-loads, and they must be trucked out,
because after bloom, the almond orchards are a vast and
Bees have been dying over the last 50 years, and we're planting
more crops that need them. There has been a 300 percent increase
in crop production that requires bee pollination.
And then there's pesticides. After World War II, we started
using pesticides on a large scale, and this became necessary
because of the monocultures that put out a feast for crop pests.
Recently, researchers from Penn State University have started
looking at the pesticide residue in the loads of pollen that
bees carry home as food, and they've found that every batch of
pollen that a honeybee collects has at least six detectable
pesticides in it, and this includes every class of insecticides,
herbicides, fungicides, and even inert and unlabeled ingredients
that are part of the pesticide formulation that can be more
toxic than the active ingredient.
This small bee is holding up a
How much is it going to take to contaminate
One of these class of insecticides,
the neonicontinoids, is
making headlines around the world right now. You've probably
heard about it. This is a new class of insecticides. It moves
through the plant so that a crop pest, a leaf-eating insect,
would take a bite of the plant and get a lethal dose and die.
one of these neonics, we call them, is applied in a high
concentration, such as in this ground application, enough of the
compound moves through the plant and gets into the pollen and
the nectar, where a bee can consume, in this case, a high dose
of this neurotoxin that makes the bee twitch and die.
agricultural settings, on most of our farms, it's only the seed
that's coated with the insecticide, and so a smaller
concentration moves through the plant and gets into the pollen
and nectar, and if a bee consumes this lower dose, either
nothing happens or the bee becomes intoxicated and disoriented
and she may not find her way home.
And on top of everything
else, bees have their own set of diseases and parasites. Public
enemy number one for bees is this thing. It's called
destructor. It's aptly named. It's this big, blood-sucking
parasite that compromises the bee's immune system and circulates
Let me put this all together for you.
I don't know what it feels
like to a bee to have a big, bloodsucking parasite running
around on it, and I don't know what it feels like to a bee to
have a virus, but I do know what it feels like when I have a
virus, the flu, and I know how difficult it is for me to get to
the grocery store to get good nutrition.
But what if I lived in
a food desert? And what if I had to travel a long distance to
get to the grocery store, and I finally got my weak body out
there and I consumed, in my food, enough of a pesticide, a
neurotoxin, that I couldn't find my way home?
And this is what
we mean by multiple and interacting causes of death.
And it's not just our honeybees. All of our beautiful wild
species of bees are at risk, including those tomato-pollinating
bumblebees. These bees are providing backup for our honeybees.
They're providing the pollination insurance alongside our
honeybees. We need all of our bees.
So what are we going to do? What are we going to do about this
big bee bummer that we've created? It turns out, it's hopeful.
It's hopeful. Every one of you out there can help bees in two
very direct and easy ways.
Plant bee-friendly flowers, and don't
contaminate these flowers, this bee food, with pesticides.
online and search for flowers that are native to your area and
plant them. Plant them in a pot on your doorstep. Plant them in
your front yard, in your lawns, in your boulevards.
have them planted in public gardens, community spaces, meadows.
Set aside farmland. We need a beautiful diversity of flowers
that blooms over the entire growing season, from spring to fall.
We need roadsides seeded in flowers for our bees, but also for
migrating butterflies and birds and other wildlife. And we need
to think carefully about putting back in cover crops to nourish
our soil and nourish our bees. And we need to diversify our
We need to plant flowering crop borders and hedge rows to
disrupt the agricultural food desert and begin to correct the
dysfunctional food system that we've created.
So maybe it seems like a really small countermeasure to a big,
huge problem - just go plant flowers - but when bees have
access to good nutrition, we have access to good nutrition
through their pollination services. And when bees have access to
good nutrition, they're better able to engage their own natural
defenses, their healthcare, that they have relied on for
millions of years.
So the beauty of helping bees this way, for
me, is that every one of us needs to behave a little bit more
like a bee society, an insect society, where each of our
individual actions can contribute to a grand solution, an
emergent property, that's much greater than the mere sum of our
So let the small act of planting flowers and
keeping them free of pesticides be the driver of large-scale
On behalf of the bees, thank you.
Chris Anderson: Thank you. Just a quick question. The latest
numbers on the die-off of bees, is there any sign of things
bottoming out? What's your hope/depression level on this?
Maria Spivak: Yeah. At least in the United States, an average of
30 percent of all bee hives are lost every winter. About 20
years ago, we were at a 15-percent loss. So it's getting
CA: That's not 30 percent a year, that's...
MS: Yes, thirty
percent a year.
CA: Thirty percent a year.
MS: But then beekeepers are able to
divide their colonies and so they can maintain the same number,
they can recuperate some of their loss.
We're kind of at a tipping point. We can't really afford to lose
that many more. We need to be really appreciative of all the
beekeepers out there. Plant flowers.
CA: Thank you.