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Coming Soon: Bees, Inc.

A decade ago, people started panicking about the collapse of the honeybee population, and how our food supply would suffer.
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A decade ago, people started panicking about the collapse of the honeybee population, and how our food supply would suffer. Today there are more honeybees than there were back then. But as with oil production—which was supposed to be on the verge of collapse too—we have engineered our way to a frenzied and precarious new normal. Instead of making honey, many beekeepers now make their money by being an integral part of the pollination-industrial complex.

Josh Dzieza's Pacific Standard feature is available to subscribers—in print or digital formats—now, and will be posted online in full on Monday, January 05. Until then, an excerpt:

In the meantime, beekeepers have been coping with the forces afflicting bees by adopting a host of new methods, from supplemental feeding to the rapid replacement of the dead. Some keepers have increased the number of times they “split” their hives—shaking some bees from a healthy colony into an empty hive and dropping in a new queen, often bought from breeders and sent through the mail in a tiny mesh box—to make up for winter losses.

All these efforts will play a role in the future of the honeybee. On one end of the spectrum you can imagine warehouses of Varroa-immune superbees plucked from an increasingly hostile landscape and kept alive for their agricultural utility. On the other end of the spectrum would be large-scale conservation, a return to smaller, weedier farms, and the adoption of less-harsh but more labor-intensive methods of pest control.

Most beekeepers I spoke with would prefer the latter but can see agriculture trending toward the former. That means a fundamental change in their lives. “We’re not beekeepers anymore, we’re bee doctors,” says one Florida man who pollinates crops in 14 states. “We’re paid to keep making beehives. They pay us to patch ’em up, send ’em out, patch ’em up, send ’em out.” As stressful and costly as the new methods are, they’re a large part of the reason the apocalyptic predictions of 2007 never came to pass. Beekeepers haven’t figured out how to stop the losses, but they’ve found a way to outrun them, for now, by multiplying their hives faster than they can die off. The motto of one business, the pollen supplement company MegaBee: Beekeeping is changing. So are we. “Honeybees aren’t going extinct,” one beekeeper told me, “they’re becoming more intensively managed livestock.” Which continues the agricultural trend—thousands of years in the making, but accelerated by modern farming—of relying entirely on a handful of chosen species and hoping we can continue to keep them alive. The system feeding humanity keeps growing, but it keeps growing more precarious.

It’s tempting to mourn beekeeping’s bucolic past and condemn wholesale the forces that have driven it to its current state, but it’s important to remember that some of those forces are also responsible for historically unprecedented bounty. Monocultures, mechanized harvesting, and even pesticides have enabled a relatively miniscule number of people to produce greater quantities of more nutritious food more cheaply than ever before. As absurd and precarious as the current system is, we wouldn’t have gotten here if each step didn’t seem logical at the time.

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