Over the past decade, the general public has started to look at bees differently. In response to the Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) crisis that emerged in the Noughties, when huge numbers of bees disappeared, and a growing sense of the threat to agriculture that pollinator losses pose, new research in bee science has changed our general understanding of bees and how apiarists conduct their business.
Despite research going back to Karl von Frisch (whose work during the 20th century on bee perception and the “waggle dance” was hotly disputed), many humans still think of beehives as rigid structures governed by monarchical hierarchy, rather than the fluid, intelligent, autonomous society that researchers find in managed hives and, especially with the work of Thomas Seeley, in the wild. Indeed, Seeley’s most recent book, The Lives of Bees, proposes a new method of managing honey production that he calls “Darwinian beekeeping”, based on years of observation and analysis of how bees operate in the wild. It makes for a new evolution in beekeeping that is hard to summarise, other than to repeat the words of one reviewer who said, simply, that it “lets bees be bees”.
Years of observation and analysis are key to all scientific work, of course. Too often, humans come to the wild world with preconceptions about how nature works, alongside a drive to tailor that world to our own wishes. Honey production has suffered greatly from this latter impulse from the mid-19th century onwards, as “breakthroughs” in management techniques increased yield, but hugely at the expense of the swarm’s health and integrity.
Under Barack Obama’s presidency, however, American scientists at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) began to collect the data needed to understand why whole bee colonies, and whole businesses, collapsed under the pressure of CCD. The initiative, launched in 2014, was not confined to bees; all pollinators were studied closely for reasons of national security. “Pollination is integral to food security in the United States,” the White House said. “Honey bees enable the production of at least 90 commercially grown crops in North America… Pollinators contribute more than $24bn to the United States economy, of which honey bees account for more than $15bn in their vital role in keeping fruits, nuts and vegetables in our diets.”
Presidents change, however. No president has done as much to turn back the tide of useful scientific research in the US than Donald Trump – and now, as part of a cost-cutting exercise across government research, Obama’s pollinator programme has been suspended. That is only the first stage of an attack on government science that Trump’s regime is waging: this summer, USDA research facilities will move en bloc from Virginia (close to Washington, and to the rich farming country that surrounds it) to a much less congenial site near Kansas City. Researchers must pick up their lives and start again, far from home, in new and ill-prepared facilities, ditching friends, family and even health-care support along the way – or leave. When the deadline came into effect in July, many did leave. So much work, so much experience and so much continuity of data gathering gone to waste. No doubt it is another “win” for Trump, whose ignorance seems less and less a character flaw and more a bitter vendetta against knowledge itself.
Next week: Stefan Buczacki on gardening
This article appears in the 28 Aug 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The long shadow of Hitler