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Cross-Pollinating for the Collective

Bee experts in Mexico focus on thoughtfully re-establishing a traditionally vital practice: stingless beekeeping

Flying under the radar of the United States National Highway System is a parallel yet equally intricate and perilous transport network, one focused on the humble honey bee.

Every February, hundreds of thousands of domesticated honey bee (Apis mellifera) colonies are shuttled on flatbed trucks from the Northern Great Plains, an area stretching from Minnesota to Montana, to California. After the bees pollinate key crops like almonds, they get sent back up North to access high-quality forage for the summer. Pre-pandemic, the honey bee pollination industry was an annual 300 million USD business, nearly as much as the honey industry; however, during an average winter, around one out of every three of these colonies will entirely die off. Why?

Maggie Shanahan, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota, may have learned part of the answer: She published a paper in January 2022 citing industrial agriculture as “the root cause of many health problems that honey bees face”.

During an average winter, around one out of every three domesticated honey bee colonies will entirely die off. Why?

In certain parts of California, hundreds of acres of almond plants sprawl with little else in sight. While this approach to growing crops maximizes profit, it leaves the fields these bees pollinate largely homogenous. The most recent California Almond Grower Survey Report showed that while 92% of surveyed almond growers rent honeybees, fewer than one-fifth of them adopt practices to attract and retain diverse pollinators, such as planting cover crops, which produce different flowers that also attract bees.

A honey bee pollinates a blossom in a California almond orchard. (David Kosling/U.S. Department of Agriculture)

While the report found that most producers were uncertain about the benefits and potential drawbacks of adopting practices to attract and retain diverse pollinators, it also found that some producers had concerns about associated space constraints, a potential influx of weeds, and possible increased farm investment. However, the monocultural, insecticide-heavy approach of U.S. industrial agriculture to farming often limits the bees’ access to varied nutritional sources, which can influence bees’ genetic profiles and gut microbiomes — lowering their disease defenses on all fronts.

Such dietary limitations can further inhibit the bees’ ability to make propolis, the vital resin that helps them with nest construction and fending off hive invaders. Propolis can have antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties, depending on which species is churning it out, and what kind of environment they’re producing it in. Honeybee propolis has had medicinal uses since ancient Egypt, and the resin of the countless wild bee species remains vital in various cultural contexts today.

Beekeepers and entomologists in the United States have spent much energy researching and innovating ways to keep domestic bees productive in this monoculture context. And while U.S. entomologists have done a lot of research into bee health, it has not effectively disrupted the industrial agriculture paradigm, according to Shanahan. Here in the U.S., we appear to have lopsided priorities when it comes to our relationship with bees.

Social insects, political lessons

Shanahan’s passion for bees radiates off her. “Have you ever opened a beehive? It’s this super organism that you can see into and work with,” she says. In her third year in college, she took a semester off to immerse herself in the world of beekeeping across the globe. Through that experience, Shanahan connected with the variety of ways beekeepers interact with their bees, as well as with the ecological and agricultural systems surrounding them.

While in graduate school, Shanahan pursued entomology with a particular interest in honey beekeeping. But the experience she had in college caused Shanahan to question whether her passion, domestic beekeeping, was always inherently good. As she began to contemplate the ethics swirling around the practice, she had what she calls an identity crisis. “Beekeeping being shaped by all the social and political structures within which it is situated — it makes sense. But that was a real pivotal point for me.”

As a white scientist doing stingless bee work in southern Mexico, I have to be prepared to ask myself the question of, ‘Is my work and presence having a positive impact?’ and I have to be open to the possibility that the answer is no. -- Maggie Shanahan, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Minnesota