Seeing a bee in the city often results in panicked humans running away out of fear of being stung. But the bees are likely less interested in humans than they are in the wildflowers they’re circling around, which are likely a safe and pesticide-free place for the bees to feed. Contrary to what we might assume, researchers have found that urban bees tend to live healthier lives than rural ones — they reproduce more, have more food stores, encounter fewer parasites and live longer.
Pesticides are a tricky topic — while they are great for the crops they are meant to protect, they harm the bees that agriculture relies on. Their use sparked debate at the Forbes 2019 AgTech Summit, where beekeepers discussed the impact of these chemicals for bees, and the potential research still needed to understand their effects, and how technology, urban settings and regulation will affect the future of pollinators. Here’s everything they said — and you need to know — about how pesticides affect bees.
What are pesticides, and how do they affect bees?
Farmers have traditionally used pesticides to control pests like weeds, insects, mold and mildew and animals like rats and mice, according to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. But they weren’t supposed to affect bees, who are critical to our food system — their pollination impacts every third bite of our food, according to the Pesticide Action Network, a nonprofit that challenges pesticide use in farming.
The most harmful chemicals to bees are known as neonicotinoid pesticides. Scientists have found that bees can be poisoned by flying through a field sprayed with the chemicals, but usually bees find harm through drinking contaminated pollen, nectar and water over time, according to PAN. Exposure to these pesticides can detrimental harm to bees over time, weakening their immune systems, shortening their adult life cycle and increasing their disorientation, and could be a cause for Colony Collapse Disorder. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency banned 12 types of neonicotinoids in May — from companies Syngenta, Valent and Bayer — there are still 47 more types on the market.
Can technology help with pesticides use?
There’s lots of startups looking into technology to change pesticides use and how we define them, especially in Europe, said Dr. Fiona Edwards Murphy, co-founder and CEO of ApisProtect. Her company, based in Ireland, utilizes machine learning to gather data about bee hive health. But Carly Stein, founder of Beekeeper’s Naturals, said that to completely rely on these new solutions for pesticides wouldn’t necessarily be the right solution. “To think there is going to be a pesticide outlet that’s not going to be damaging in some way, shape or form is just a little bit naive,” Stein says.
If anything, removing pesticides all together could mean growers would have to resort back to older methods of pest control that could potentially be more harmful to the bees, says Stein, who was listed on Forbes’ 2019 30 Under 30. Instead, there should be further research into how pesticides interact with other chemicals, and the subsequent effect on bees. Her company — whose mission is to reinvent the medicine cabinet with bee-based products —outsources its production to regions with no pesticides use like Canada, and conducts third-party pesticides testing on all its raw materials to produce its organic products.
How can urban beekeeping help?
But there are locations that are more sustainable for beekeeping, though, and they might not be where you predict. Timothy “Paule” Jackson’s nonprofit, Detroit Hives, builds urban bee farms in abandoned lots in Detroit, Michigan. By planting wildflowers, it provides bees a safe place to feed with little to no pesticides, Jackson said. “We have so many bees where wildflowers are sprouting, and we’re not spraying any chemicals on these wildflowers that they are actually boosting the native bee population,” Jackson says.
Stein mentioned that urban bees are often healthier than wild bees because of urban bee farms like Detroit Hives. While she loves meeting urban beekeepers, the issue is that there aren’t enough of them to sustain commercial production in the U.S., she says.
How can growers help beekeepers?
While there may be no immediate solution to pesticides, what’s needed is a stronger line of communication between beekeepers and growers, said Ellie Symes, CEO Of The Bee Corp and winner of the THRIVE Sustainability Award. She’s noted that her company has actually started working closer with growers, helping bridge the gap of education between the two groups of agricultural workers. It’s helpful for at least beekeepers to know what crops are being sprayed with pesticides and when, she says.
“We are starting to see the different players working together, the chemical companies getting involved and being interested and that’s what matters,” Symes says. “We’ll figure this issue out, but everyone’s gotta be involved.”
=Haley Kim; Forbes Staff