Wednesday evening, the documentary film “The Pollinators” was shown simultaneously in locations across the country, with 17 of those screenings located in Tennessee and one at the University of Tennessee. UT’s own screening was put on by the UT Institute of Agriculture and the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology, and the event was hosted by Dr. Jennifer Tsuruda, an assistant professor in the UT Institute of Agriculture and an apiculture specialist.
Tsuruda explained how supportive the research industry for bees is in Tennessee.
“We have a really great, supportive industry. ... Tennessee is outdoing any other in state in terms of the number of showings of this film,” Tsuruda said.
“The Pollinators” highlights the recent epidemic of bee deaths that have been occurring throughout the United States, and the film presented testimonies from various farmers, beekeepers and academics on the subject of the bee crisis. The documentary detailed three main causes for the deaths of the insects: parasites, poor nutrition and, most importantly, pesticides.
Due to the highly industrialized farming system that exists in the U.S. today, much of nature and many naturally-existing plants have been replaced with rows upon rows of the same crops. These extensive croplands have reduced the space available for native plants, those which bees would commonly feed upon, to grow and have therefore diminished the bees’ food supply.
Additionally, the parasites in particular that have been harming the bees are the varroa destructor mites. These large pests originate from Asia, but by latching onto the backs of traveling honeybees, the mites have invaded every country in the world except for Australia. The bugs are extremely large and damaging; the size of the bugs to bees can be compared to the size of a fist to a human.
It is very difficult for beekeepers to remedy the problem of invasive mites. If left alone, the mites greatly harm the bees, but the alternative solution is often to spray pesticides, which also harm the bees.
There are certain methods, which involve extensively monitoring of mites and the use of effective treatments, that can effectively reduce mites’ damage, as Tsuruda explained in a Q and A session after the film. However, in Tsuruda’s experience, many beekeepers are not utilizing efficient methods to address the mite problem.
“That is something that is a big problem for Tennessee, but most of the beekeepers I talk to are not following best management practices, so we’re working really hard to get them to adopt the practices to be more successful,” Tsuruda said.
Furthermore, pesticide use is one of the most damaging causes of the bee death crisis. Pesticides have been commonly used in the United States for decades now, and although many of the most dangerous products have been banned over time, it seems as if new replacements for pesticides always end up having harmful effects, just like their predecessors.
As explained in the film, part of this harm occurs due to the Environmental Protection Agency’s failure to adequately test pesticide products before allowing them to be commonly used. The European Union, on the contrary, has much stricter policies in place about the evaluation of pesticides before they hit the market, which directly affects the amount of damage that these pesticides are allowed to do.
Although pesticides have played a role in the mass extinction of many other species, including bats and birds, honeybees in particular are especially susceptible to the damage from the chemicals in pesticides. Due to the waxy nature of honeycombs, any chemicals that come into contact with the combs are often trapped inside of the wax and remain in the beehives for extensive periods of time. Therefore, it is practically impossible to fully defend bees from pesticides; one bee infected with pesticide chemicals is capable of contaminating a whole hive.
The amount of bees that have been dying in recent years is numerous; each year, around 40 to 50% of hives die out. This mass death literally leaves piles of bee bodies out in nature; the film showed several clips of the open insect graves. And when a bee in a hive dies, the other bees unceremoniously carry the deceased out of their homes.
Because the bees are dying, the entire country of America is suffering, “The Pollinators” explained. Farmers are required to ship in bees from across America to pollinate their crops, because there are not enough of the insects left in the natural world to do the job. Oftentimes, as explained in the film, a beekeeper gets a last-minute call from a farmer who needs bees on site in a matter of days. The beekeepers pack their bees up into dozens of crates covered with netting, load them onto a semi-truck and drive them across the country, often through the night.
Grueling trips like this have become commonplace. One beekeeping company featured in the film, Hackenberg Apiaries, takes these kind of trips to let farmers borrow their bees around 22 times a year.
So, what is the solution to the crisis of bee deaths in America? Well, if “Black Mirror” has taught us anything, it is certainly not government-controlled pollinating robots. However, according to “The Pollinators,” there are lots of other solutions that can be administered successfully. For one, Americans can be more conscious of where their food is coming from. Buying locally and searching for organic products that were produced without pesticides is a simple task and supports farmers who are farming without products harmful to bees.
Secondly, farmers must change their agricultural methods. Overly-industrialized, large equipment-heavy farming is not sustainable. It destroys the environment and henceforth destroys the bees. Although more traditional farming methods are more time and labor intensive, they are necessary to not only preserve America’s bees but also to preserve farmlands themselves. With heavy tillage and industrialized agriculture, farmlands cannot be sustained over time. Eventually, their soil will become too damaged to yield any sort of crop.
Additionally, tillage can destroy certain bees’ habitats, as Tsuruda explained.
“Native bees that are ground-nesting bees, they’re nesting in the soil, so you don’t want to do tills where you’re disrupting their reproduction, essentially,” Tsuruda said.
Sam Adams, UT’s arborist, was in attendance at the film, and he explained that he learned from a farmer from Pennsylvania that Tennessee in particular is being more proactive than most states in attempting to halt over-tillage.
“Tennessee agriculture programs are supporting no-till farming practices better than almost any other state extensions around the country,” Adams said.
Overall, awareness is the key to halting the mass bee extinction—awareness about pesticide use, awareness about food consumption and awareness about sustainable farming. If these three factors can move in positive directions, then there is hope for helping America’s bee population.