By Adam J. Blust

In 2007, professional beekeepers began to sound the alarm that bees were suffering huge losses in their populations.

“The bees were just gone,” said UW Professor Claudio Gratton, who spoke at the Sustain Dane Sustainable Breakfast July 18.

“The hives were empty.”

This “colony collapse” sparked an avalanche of speculation. Was it UFOs? Interference from cell phone towers?

The reality is much more basic. But that doesn’t mean the fixes are simple or easy to implement.

Pollination is incredibly important to world food production. One of three bites of food we eat is from insect-pollinated foods. Globally, $188 billion per year of agricultural production comes from insect-pollinated crops. That’s 10 percent of the value of crops used for human food.

In 2013, Whole Foods did a study of what their stores would look like without bees. And the results were stark.

The workhorse of the insect pollinator world is the honey bee, which is managed like livestock in industrial hives. But with these populations losing sometimes 40 percent of their members year over year, the question is, where do we go from here?

There are absolutely wild bees out there – more than 20,000 species, with 400 in Wisconsin alone.

Gratton said that there are some cases where wild bees could take the place of the managed honey bee populations, especially where there are natural habitats that support the wild bees. But those mixed habitats are becoming rarer as agriculture consolidates in the U.S. and around the world.

Which leads back to the reasons for the collapse in the managed bee populations. Gratton said there are three main factors for this: increases in pathogens that kill bees; habitat loss through urbanization; and consolidation of agriculture into giant monocultures that don’t support the health of the bees.

In the early 1900s, the average rural county in the United States grew 12 different crops. A century later, that number is only 6.

In the 1940s, farms got larger and more consolidated, and the use of agrichemicals (fertilizers and pesticides) increased greatly.

In the 1990s was a major increase in insecticides similar to nicotine that have what Gratton called “sub-lethal effects” on the bees – they don’t kill them, but make them less effective in pollinating.

Gratton said “pollinating” is an anthropocentric term in the first place, because the bees aren’t trying to help us grow our crops; they are just trying to find food for themselves.

Add these factors to urbanization and climate change, and the “colony collapse” seems much more understandable. And it’s not just bees. A 2017 European study found a 75 percent decline in flying insect biomass over 27 years.

So what can we do?

One thing we can do, Gratton said, is cultivate urban and suburban gardens, and other spaces where plants and flowers create habitats for the bees. Gratton and his team have created an online assessment tool that can help you figure out how well you are supporting pollinator habitats. That tool can be found here.

Doing simple things like cutting down on your leaf maintenance can help wild bees survive, since the queens can nest in leaf litter.

You can also contribute to scientific study of bees and their habitats. One way to contribute is through an app called WiBee: The Wisconsin Wild Bee App. Through this app, you can survey your environment and provide data that will help scientists like Gratton find insights into native bee populations.

You can check out the app here. Gratton also recommended an app called BeeMachine.

Getting involved means that you contribute data to the cause. But it has another great effect, Gratton said.

“The other thing it does is it forces you to get out there and spend five minutes and just look at things,” he said. “Just taking those five minutes is a really important way that you can get engaged.”

When you are thinking about your own natural environment, Gratton said one important thing is to focus on native plants and flowers, rather than those that we import just because they look pretty to us. The native plants are going to be much more hospitable to native bee populations.

“No Mow May” was brought up in an audience question after Gratton’s talk as a possible way to increase biodiversity and help the bee populations. He said the topic is controversial, since the effects are disputed among the different audiences for this effort.

“Why should mowing your monoculture Kentucky Bluegrass less make that a better pollinator habitat? If there are no flowers in there, mowing or no mowing, it’s not going to make a difference,” Gratton said.

“But the spirit is right. What can we be doing in our own backyards to support local biodiversity?”

The bee decline is a complex problem involving many factors, including: agricultural and trade policies, supply chains, and food policy generally. But Gratton said the increase in dialogue over these issues shows that there is an appetite for change, and improvement.

“I’m very much a glass-half-full type of person,” he said. ❖