By Thomas Guan, MEng ’23 (ME/Product Design)This op-ed is recognized as having the Best Visuals in the annual Berkeley MEng op-ed contest and part of a series from E295: Communications for Engineering Leaders. In this course, Master of Engineering students were challenged to communicate a topic they found interesting to a broad audience of technical and non-technical readers. As an opinion piece, the views shared here are neither an expression of nor endorsed by UC Berkeley or the Fung Institute. In the spring of 2020, stores were devoid of fresh groceries, dairy products, and infamously, toilet paper. That was a glimpse of a potential world, where lack of resources are not due to supply chain and labor issues hampered by a global pandemic, but rather a world where pollinators are extinct. Not only will the fruit and vegetables we enjoy on a daily basis be under threat, but also the food which much of agricultural livestock eats as well, leading to a whole host of food security issues. Here in California, bees play a critical role in pollination for a majority of industrial agriculture. Farmers of varying crops ranging from apples to almonds bring in thousands of colonies of bees from all across the country to pollinate their crop for another successful season. In fact, the almond industry in California alone imports over two million beehives, or about 48 billion bees every year from all across the country for the sole purpose of pollination.  The underappreciated, unsung heroes of our food chain, the beekeepers, have been facing an uphill battle in recent years, as the odds are quickly stacking against them. From the ever pernicious crawl of climate change, to the parasitic varroa mite, beekeepers are struggling, and the cracks are starting to form. This long standing struggle is akin to a battle between the beekeeper and their bees as they face off against an ever-changing reaper spirit. A spirit whose power is ever-growing with three primary forms: One, climate change. The hotter summers and colder winters are becoming an undeniable fact of reality. While we humans can flee into the comfort of our climate-controlled homes, bees find themselves either being literally cooked or frozen to death. Furthermore, as the planet changes, the synchronization between the flowering season of plants and the pollinator’s life cycles are becoming further and further out of sync, causing nutritional deficits for not only bees, but for other pollinators like butterflies as well.  Two, varroa destructor. A fitting name for such an insidious insect, the varroa mite has no other purpose in life other than suckling off the flesh of bees. It infests hives and drains the resources of hardworking bees, creating colony health issues and are both difficult to detect and tricky to treat. This pernicious parasite exists in bee colonies worldwide, with the Isle and Man being the last sanctuary of varroa-free bee colonies. The island takes varroa mites so seriously that it has since banned any imports of bee-related items.  Australia, another island which once also held the proud title of being varroa-free, fell in June 2022, as the first mites were found at an inspection at a sea port.  These mites have often been cited by beekeepers to be a major headache, a source for colony collapse disorder, and have no natural predators. Three, pesticides. Pesticides and pollinators do not mix. These chemicals are the primary culprit behind colony collapse disorder, which causes rapid and unexpected bee loss within a hive. Because of their perniciousness, the EPA has actually pulled a large variety of pesticides at the behest of a lawsuit brought on by beekeepers, but it’s still not enough.  Pesticides which currently might not kill bees outright may weaken them such that they die during the winter months, or build up pernicious poisons within the hives which cause deformities or death. As these issues continue to mount, bee population survival across years has decreased dramatically. These days, beekeepers consider themselves lucky if they are keeping 60 or 70% of their colony, with losses typically ranging in the 40–50% range as of 2021–2022.  This vicious cycle then perpetuates itself as the weakened colonies struggle to return to full strength in time for the next pollination season. Every season, the bees and their keepers contend with the reaper in its many forms; varroa mites, pesticides, frigid winters, and scorching summers, a battle though valiantly fought, is slowly being lost. The pollinator problem isn’t ignored by organizations and engineering companies. Beewise, most notably, is a startup combining robotics with beekeeping to automate and regulate beekeeping. Many others are taking up arms with their technical knowledge to build companies and products attempting to help bees, ranging from sensors to attachments, but not every sword will be sharp enough to pierce the ever-toughening armor of the bee reaper.
“While we are just students at Berkeley, there is still much we can do to slow the progression of this ever-growing problem.”“Voting with your wallet” can contribute greatly to bee health. Where and when possible, looking towards organic growers and the general reduction of pesticide use in growth can help loosen the grip pesticides have on bee populations. Further, being able to directly support beekeepers in their endeavors to maintain our critical insect population is a noble effort in itself. For people of action, getting involved with community or personal gardens to create pollinator friendly-gardens, maintaining mason homes, or creating bee oasis in hot months can do a great deal to help the natural and wild pollinators of our world, not just limited to honeybee populations. Planting native bee-friendly flowers, using your vote to protect existing habitats, volunteering with a local beekeeping or gardening association are just some of the ways which we can start progressing towards cultivating stronger pollinator populations. We here are lucky enough to have some of the brightest minds studying, working, and teaching here at UC Berkeley. While you may not have any breakthrough ideas, or for that matter, care to think of ideas to help bees and other pollinators, knowing and pollinating other minds with this issue might just be enough to strike true in someone’s heart, someone’s mind, and push an engineering revolution to create a critical solution. Knowledge and ideas never truly die. Let this story of humans and insects fighting valiantly against an evil, ever-changing reaper spirit be one you tell. One you might just bring up in casual conversation, or remind yourself of the next time you’re shopping for food. So long as this story lives with you, the bees and their keepers have not truly lost. References
- “One Bee for Every 20 Nuts”. www.asmith.ucdavis.edu. Aron Smith. Retrieved 2022–11–11.
- “Bolstering Bees in a Changing Climate”. USDA:Agricultural Research Service. Retrieved 2022–11–11.
- “Isle of Man Government — Bees”. www.gov.im. Retrieved 2022–11–10.
- “New Varroa mite detection linked to Newcastle”. Newcastle Weekly. 2022–07–04. Retrieved 2022–11–10.
- “California Puts Freeze on New Uses of Bee-killing Pesticides”. Center for Biological Diversity. 2018–01–04. Retrieved 2022–11–11.
- “United States Honey Bee Colony Losses 2021–2022: Preliminary Results from the Bee Informed Partnership”. Bee Informed Partnership. 2022–07–28. Retrieved 2022–11–11.
Op-ed: Bees versus the world was originally published in Berkeley Master of Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.