Is it scary if an episode of “Black Mirror” becomes reality? More than sixty percent of the American honeybee population has died off within the last ten years. If the bees continue to die at the current rate, we might soon need robotic bees to help us!
Three out of four crops around the world rely on bees for pollination. Today bees are responsible for 30% of the world’s food production. To put it in perspective, each and every year California needs more than two million bee colonies for the almond industry alone.
So when more than 60% of the American honeybee population died in the last 10 years, bees began making headlines. For the past few years, we’ve lost on average 40 percent of the bee population every year, a 25 point jump since 2004. If this trend continues, it will be the end of our food supply as we know it. We will see a big price surge in fresh produce like apples, blueberries, and avocados.
So why are bees dying?
Rudolf Steiner was an Austrian writer who predicted the situation we are in all the way back in 1921. He predicted that in 80 to 100 years there would be a major crisis, due to the artificial breeding in the bee industry. Since the beginning of the 20th century, we started getting better at engineering and industrializing our food supply, and the one thing industrial farming really is against is diversity.
The focus is on developing a high yield, low maintenance monoculture product for easy management. And that makes the crops vulnerable. We’ve seen it in banana, wheat and quinoa: When diversity gives in to the market economy. The banana industry is set up as the biggest monoculture in the world. However, when the Panama Disease came, we had no answer to it.
The bananas your grandparents ate are commercially extinct. We got lucky when we happened on find a new banana cultivar to replace it, but at a huge cost. The same goes for bees, despite the fact there are over 240 different kinds of bees, we picked the one that makes the most honey.
Today, the European Honey Bee is dominating species for pollination as well as honey production. So when these bees started to die for mysterious reasons in mass, we found ourselves in real trouble. Starting in 2005, beekeepers started to notice a phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder among European Honey Bees. The worker bees would abandon the queen and simply disappear.
However, there’s no clear consensus why they suddenly started to die off, although certain newer pesticides are suspected to play a large role.
In Southwest China, a combination of air pollution and heavy fertilization made wild bees so rare farmers had to resort to pollination by hand. The same thing is starting to happen in the U.S.; where farmers rent bees at over 350 dollars per hive in California for pollinating their crops. 95% of corn crops in the world uses pesticide containing neonicotinoids, a substance that is known to kill bees. The European Union banned the use of neonicotinoids in 2018, but the problem seems to persist. There’s also a problem with mites, who squat in beehives and slowly take over. If the trend continues, what can we do to replace it?
Scientists at Harvard University have developed a robotic bee that can survive in water, and most importantly pollinate. Robot bees are powered by artificial muscles. But this project has been going for at least 7 years, and it sadly doesn’t look like it will be completed anytime soon.
Scientists in Japan have tried taking a shortcut by using cheap drones and coding them to do the pollinating. Walmart even came up with a pattern trying to get a head start on artificial bees. A real beehive can pollinate 8 million plants while producing one pound of honey. Robotic bees would have a hard time replacing even a fraction of the tens of billions of bees we need each and every year.
Since the Covid-19 pandemic, we are constantly reminded that the survival of humanity is hanging on a thread. As for our bee problem, we do need to come up with a solution, and we need it soon!