By: Stephen M. Robertson
I began to invest time in researching pollinating insects about three years ago. I have been delighted that public is surprisingly aware of and active in “beepocalypse”, even though it has led to a number of misconceptions and downright fabrications. Something like the game “telephone” I played in junior high school – except in this case, the ramifications are much larger than if “Jimmy has a booger and farts a lot” is derived from “Tammy is cooler than Sir Mix-a-Lot”. I am writing this blog post in response to some conversations I have had with people over the past couple years in person and on social media. There are a lot of false ideas being spread out there in the normal world (as scientists, we are often disconnected from what the majority of the public think they know), and I think it is important to do a few things: I want to scare you (the reader/the public) into realizing just how big the current situation is, I want to stress the importance of insect pollinators so you fully understand what is at stake, and I want to clear some things up.
Recently there has been an overwhelming global concern for our insect pollinators. And rightly so. These insects have been experiencing dramatic declines in abundance and diversity all over the world. This represents a major problem, as some 70% of the plants that humans use directly for consumption are fully dependent on pollinators, particularly insects (Klein et al. 2007), to generate the yummy goodness we enjoy so much. Even plants that do not rely on animal-mediated pollination have been shown to receive great benefits from it. Without getting too deep into the “why”, food production (amount/acre; yield) can be increased significantly when an insect takes pollen from one plant to another plant of the same species. This is called cross pollination, and flowering plants (angiosperms) just love it (excuse the anthropomorphism – it is more fun and easier to understand this way).
In fact, angiosperms are the most successful group of plants on the planet for one reason – pollinating insects. The origin of these plants has been traced to the Oxfordian Age of the Jurassic Period, about 160 million years ago (mya). They hit a real boom of diversification during the Lower and Middle Cretaceous periods (145-120 mya). After they evolved, it allowed for a dramatic increase in the diversity of insects – including first appearances of insects that still exist today in some shape or form (like bees, moths, and butterflies). They have been coevolving ever since. It could be argued (and is by me) that pollinating insects have most heavily shaped our world into what it is today and have been the second greatest contributors to the success story of human beings (behind ourselves, of course). If they disappear, we lose a primary source of food, we lose our beautiful flowering plants, and we lose a primary source for the removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide (the greenhouse gas that links human activity to climate change). So yeah – I think the concern is well warranted.
Luckily we are not at that point yet, and we won’t be for a very long time (as humans, we tend to respond only to doomsday scenarios – so BOO!). The fact remains, though, that pollinating insects are extremely important to life as we know it and they are disappearing faster than we have ever recorded. Many scientists agree (myself included) that the way humans manage terrestrial habitats (agriculture and agricultural practices, urbanization, deforestation, etc.) is to blame. This is uplifting to me. “Wait what? Why?” Because we can change it. Because we can study it, identify it, and alter the way we do things to ameliorate the declines. In short, this problem is fixable. In order to do so, I think it is important that we take a second to look at a couple misconceptions. One: “Honey bees are endangered!”, and two: “Robot bees can take their place!” No and no.
To start, we need to understand the difference between “declining” and “endangered” and what it means to qualify these terms. Declining in biological terms simply means “becoming fewer in numbers.” No inherent threat of extinction – just not as many as were before. Endangered carries the term “near extinction” in its definition, the most important distinction. If I eat all but one cookie out of a cookie jar, it is fair to say that “cookies have declined in numbers,” because there are fewer than were present before I showed up. You might even say the “cookies are endangered.” Both could be true statements. But the key here is that these statements require more definition. “Cookies have declined in numbers.” True. I ate some. There are less now than there were before – BUT someone could have been making more cookies somewhere else as I was eating them in my house, thus causing cookies to increase overall. “Cookies are endangered.” Again, too broad. Surely you are not the only person in this imaginary world that has cookies. Truth is, we only know how cookies are doing in this imaginary house in this imaginary jar. So each statement could be inaccurate unless we qualify them to make them true (ask yourself “Does my sole cookie jar represent what ALL cookies are experiencing?”). Qualification means defining parameters (conditions) that offer truth to your statement. For example, “Cookies have declined IN MY COOKIE JAR.” Absolutely, 100% true. “Cookies are endangered IN MY COOKIE JAR.” Very true. With only one left in the jar, they are very near extinction IN THAT JAR. As we increase the scope of our statements (as in “Cookies are declining in my neighborhood”, “…in my city”, “…in my state”, etc.), they become less and less probable of being accurate based on what we saw in the jar. So we have to recognize the difference between these terms (and others) when we see reports concerning bee populations and should expect to see qualifying conditions accompanying them. Otherwise, we allow ourselves to succumb to misleading, hype-media reports designed to induce an emotional response more than to accurately inform.
Next, we need to establish the difference between “European honey bees”, “honey bees”, and “bees” (names are yet another qualifier). They are not the same thing. When the name “honey bee” is used, it is most commonly referring to the European honey bee (Apis melifera). But “honey bee” is the common name broadly ascribed to any of seven species currently recognized in the genus Apis. Seven. So, it is actually a misuse of the name to refer only to the European honey bee (this is why biologists use scientific names – e.g. Apis melifera – much less confusing, even if mostly Latin). Understanding that type of specificity is incredibly important. Continuing with my cookie example, let me add a cookie type into the scenario. “Chocolate chip cookies are endangered in my cookie jar.” While that might alarm some of you, I am not the biggest fan of chocolate chip cookies. They wouldn’t be there unless a friend brought them over (much like the story of the European honey bee). So, I am not worried (besides, fewer chocolate chip means more space for native oatmeal raisin). By understanding how adding (or removing) specific names alters statements, we can deconstruct them such that they are accurate and meaningful scientifically. Let’s deconstruct “Cookies are declining.” How do we define “cookies?” For this statement, “cookies” would refer to all cookies of all types in existence, because no qualifiers delimit it otherwise. So, in what way are they declining? The statement is too vague to determine that. It could mean a number of things. Maybe there are fewer total cookies in the world (abundance). Maybe there are fewer types of cookies (diversity). Maybe cookies are no longer found in China (range). Each situation could be described as “declining.” Confusion derived from misunderstanding and the ambiguous, but still accurate, nature of statements like these that leads to misconceptions like “Honey bees are endangered.”
Yes. European honey bees (the ones the western public is most familiar with and has associated as being endangered) have displayed declines in managed colonies over the past 70 years in several key regions around the world. However, many countries only recently began to report colonies. For example, some Asian countries just started reporting managed bee hives in 2006, which is evident in the dramatic rise in global managed bee census data in 2006-2007. In fact, because of the sudden influx of data, European honey bees appear more abundant globally than ever (VanEngelsdorp and Meixner 2009). It is important to realize that terms like “declining” and “increasing” are relative to existing data (accurate or not). They imply that the populations were different previously. So it could be from yesterday. It could be from last year. It could be from 10,000 years ago. For example, “managed colonies of the European honey bee have declined in the United States over the last 70 years.” A true statement. BUT, “managed colonies of the European honey bee have infinitely increased in the United States over the last 500 years,” is also true. You see, European honey bees (or any honey bees) are not native to North (or South) America. They were introduced by early European settlers. It is difficult to pinpoint their origin (we believe Asia or Africa) because humans have spread them around so much, but we know they were present in Europe during the Neolithic Period (about 10,000 years ago; Roffet-Salque et al. 2015) and Africa during the Old Kingdom of Egypt (about 5,000 years ago; hieroglyphs), and we know that they were
not found in the Western Hemisphere until the early 17th century. So, in reality, declines in European honey bee colonies in the United States over the past 70 years is a step toward the natural state of being. Don’t get me wrong; the observed losses in European honey bee colonies in much of “western” society is still alarming – these insects are our most important pollinators (even if they were introduced, we still depend on them). Plus,many of the explanations for their declines, particularly land management, affect other bee species similarly (a very important aspect that I will get to later), and we have yet to establish effective solutions. So, I suspect we will continue to see these declines. But European honey bees are NOT endangered. Not by a long shot.
So why does the fact that much of the lay population believing this to be the case disturb me? It can be boiled down into one simple reason: you, the public, the lay people, you have that power. Only by your actions can we change the way things are done and really make a difference for the bees that ARE endangered (there are loads of them now and more coming in each year), so it is critical that you have it correct. Bees are declining. Not European honey bees. Not honey bees. Bees. This common name refers to an entire family (Apidae), a full step back from the taxonomic resolution of a genus (e.g. Apis – honey bees), that represents some 6000 species. Notice how the statement does not mean ALL bee species. It means the group on whole has shown declines in some respect (e.g. abundance, diversity, range, etc.). In this case, most reports come from native (perhaps the most important qualifier) bee communities and “declines” can accurately refer to the abundance, diversity, AND range of these organisms. Bumble bees, for example, have been some of the hardest populations hit. Some reports are downright frightening, with new reports of local extinctions and more listings of critical population statuses coming in from, seemingly, everywhere. These pollinators are contenders for “Most Effective Pollinators Ever,” they just don’t have the numbers and effective range that European honey bees do. However, putting the limelight on European honey bees because of confusion takes attention away from bee species that really need it – and some of them REALLY need it.
Another major issue I have run into exploring social media outlets is the belief in non-existent solutions. The one I heard most often: robot bees. Have you seen Black Mirror? A wonderful science fiction show made by Netflix in the likeness of Twilight Zone and Tales from the Crypt. Just a wonderful series (albeit way too dang short – make us some new episodes Netflix!!). In one episode, a tech company in England develops a robotic bee that replaces the recently extinct honey bee. The robot bees are autonomous, as effective as honey bees in pollination, and not at all susceptible to the same
environmental stressors as their as their biological precursors. In the episode precursors. In the episode (SPOILER ALERT!), a hacker infiltrates the core code and alters it to use the bees for murder. A fascinating take on a future with technology using current, real-life concerns to augment its basis in reality. It is, however, science fiction. We only just got our first insect-size robot to fly in 2013. The mechanics are actually the easy part. Framework materials are becoming stronger and lighter. We are getting better at imitating the wing motions with our piezoelectric actuators (a means of vibrating small structures in a controlled manner that can mimic insect flight muscles). Power sources are becoming smaller, allowing for smaller robots. We are also quickly overcoming the physical obstacles associated with insect flight. An incredible time for robotics – especially as an entomologist. But the physics is not the big issue. The computing technology is.
You see, one robot bee would not even be close to enough to replace bees. Depending on the environment, we might need thousands. Depending on the area in question, we might need tens of thousands. To fully replace bees, we would need trillions. I am just guessing, but in my opinion, that is a lowball guess. Around the world, we would need QUADRILLIONS. But let’s just say 100 bees/acre working around the clock would be enough, and that you could buy them neatly packaged and ready to go (let’s not discuss cost – at this time it would be unimaginable). So we buy 100 robot bees that all operate on their own, self-contained server – bc they would have to be linked to one another and need the free space for themselves. You certainly could not operate them individually (100 bees working at the same time under RC – don’t lie to yourself). So they have to be autonomous and able to make their own, real-time decisions. What would that take? For starters, a camera small enough to fit the robot without completely weighing it down. Navigation – so GPS. The ability to sense, process, and react to microhabitat weather conditions instantaneously. The absolute best recognition software, that doesn’t exist yet, to identify the many different types of flowers they might encounter. A physical set of tools designed to collect pollen from different flower types (one size does not fit all). A mechanism for pollination; so, a program that can use the recognition software data to make the correct decision as to which tool and what action most appropriately collects/deposits pollen. A complex algorithm using all input data to plot the most efficient flight route for the best pollination, which would have to be programmed for each situation and each flower type (neighbors don’t always work as pollenizers). A real time link with all of the other bots to coordinate flower visitation, avoid collisions, and share information. An artificial intelligence (please name it HIVE) able to learn from, solve unique and complex problems using, and adapt to all incoming data sources. The processing power and memory to do ALL OF THIS. Something with all the capabilities of a current smartphone in something roughly the size of an acorn. We are not quite to that level of technology – yet.
The day will come when we are able to generate robotic bees to perform the function of insect pollinators in agriculture. It is seems a little far-fetched to think we can replace all bees. And to be honest, I wouldn’t want that. Humans controlling the pollination fate of all angiosperms sounds like a disastrous situation. Replace bees in agriculture? Now that could be amazing. With the programming and hardware required for pollination, it would be little more to add some new protocols – like a predatory sub-routine, where the robot bees remove pests (of all kinds) as a dual role. Pesticides could be phased out, removing a major cost of growing and a major environmental stressor for biological pollinators. Yields would increase due to a lack of pest pressure, resulting in a decreased issue with food shortages. How about a seed planting sub-routine, where the robot bees surgically place seeds for the most optimal production? Big machinery costs would drop, as we would no longer need planters. The amount of time invested into planting could be practically negated. What about plant diagnostics? Soil analyses? Harvest? The possibilities seem endless. Plus, robot bees don’t innately carry the maintenance costs of big machinery. If one bee breaks down, just buy one more – the hardware is not the expensive part, and you would already have the software. With relaxed pressures and greater opportunity for profit, I see this increasing the number of small farmers; a step in the right direction, if you ask me. These farms are much more manageable and much less deleterious to surrounding habitat. So absolutely – robot bees could be a silver bullet for many of these issues WHEN the time comes that the tech is available. Certainly not now.
Even the most reasonable complaints that offer no solution can essentially be called “whining.” So let me suggest a couple viable alternatives to the current mainstream climate. The first, and less effective, is to respect all bees. If you can recognize it as a bee (and please do look into identifying them), appreciate and respect it. In my opinion they are all really cool. They all have some really interesting stories to tell, and so many of them are super attractive. Recognizing them helps us excite others to do the little things that may help their populations bounce back. Lots of people doing a little goes a long way. The second, and by far the best solution, is to understand the reasons we are seeing the declines. I saw a viral video that received a lot of flak because someone accidentally killed a single European honey bee in a car window. Let me quickly point out why that is simply crazy. It was an accident (if you are intentionally killing any bees, I think there is reason to believe you are a sociopath). These honey bees can exist in colonies upwards of hundreds of thousands of individuals. Even if you kill 500, you won’t make a dent (don’t try it; it is in no way a good thing either). Besides, foragers (the ones we see out and about) are the oldest workers of the colony (a really nifty evolutionary safety net where the most experienced, smartest [they actually do accumulate knowledge], and oldest expose themselves to the most danger). They are kind of “on their way out,” anyway. If we can pivot the mainstream alarm, like I saw for this one individual, from European honey bees towards current land management practices, we can generate the means to rid ourselves of the broader issue. Instead of worrying about the cough, we can get rid of the virus that causes the cough. This will get us the results we want – no: the results we NEED.
Important in all of this, stay intrigued, stay informed with reputable research, and educate yourself and others. Not everything you read is accurate. Not everything you see is designed to be purely informative. Be cognizant of hype reports and false media. We have to band together to combat this situation. Only together can we improve conditions for our insect pollinators.
Hated in the Nation: Black Mirror (2016). Television program, Netflix, 21 October.
Klein AM, Vaissière BE, Cane JH, Steffan-Dewenter I, Cunningham SA, Kremen C, Tscharntke T (2007). Importance of pollinators in changing landscapes for world crops. Proceedings of the Royal Society B 274: 303-313
Roffet-Salque M et al. (2015). Widespread exploitation of the honeybee by early Neolithic farmers. Nature 527: 226-230.
VanEngelsdorp D, Meixner MD (2010). A historical review of managed honey bee populations in Europe and the United States and the factors that may affect them. J Inv Path 103: 580-595.