By: Jay Evans
#Beeoptomism: What if the super really is half full?
My ears perked up recently on hearing several leaders in environmental science talking, for once, about some silver linings in our environment. This ‘Earthoptimism’ ethic (e.g., https://earthoptimism.si.edu/) does not deny the huge impacts, many negative, our species is having on the planet. It doesn’t even claim that things can’t get worse. Instead, Earthoptimism strives to point out that much remains. More importantly, the movement seeks foot soldiers to preserve what remains by putting all their energy into solutions. Many of us only respond to recruitment fliers when the outcome has some hope of being positive. Nancy Knowlton, an ocean researcher who is driving the Earth Optimism movement, has every reason to be pessimistic. She is well aware of coral bleaching, changing climates, and those swirling masses of ocean plastic that show up on Youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDHuPjx0aPQ). Despite these challenges, she is promoting the more powerful view that there is much to be done and we are the ones to do it. As she says, ““Big problems without solutions leads to apathy. Big problems with solutions leads to action.”
The bee world deserves and, more importantly, needs a bit of optimism to start the New Year. This doesn’t let bad beekeeping, bad stewardship, or even (gasp) bad research off the hook, but points to what is working and especially to all that is worth saving. It is absolutely true that we need healthy populations of pollinators for our food supply and environment. Achieving this requires improving the tools used by beekeepers (for honey bees) and habitat stewards (for honey bees as well as the remaining bees) to maintain these populations. These tools range from science to management and regulation. #Beeoptomism is one way to get more mechanics on board to make something happen.
I have always been most comfortable in the optimists’ club, despite occasional bad luck and outright failures by myself and those around me. We all have formative experiences, and I spent a year of my early teens in and out of hospitals with pretty severe kidney disease. It was apparently some sort of puzzle for the day’s medicine, or I wasn’t responding, or both, but I spent months and months as just another sad kid with a catheter. We Evans’ are pretty stoic and I don’t remember my caring parents ever explaining why I was still sick, and I assume they were just as scared as I was. Enter Dr. Liliedahl, a pediatrician who not only had a plan of attack but an overwhelmingly infectious optimism. I distinctly remember my parents looking puzzled and perhaps thinking “what is this victory of which he speaks?” But his spirit dragged us along for additional months and procedures and eventually things worked out fine.
So – what can we be optimistic about in the world of honey bees and other pollinators?
Here are five things, in no particular order:
We have a great corps of passionate new beekeepers on the scene, and they’re good at communicating in real time. They are using twitter, instagram, and other avenues to communicate and improve their beekeeping.
Ditto that for new researchers. I am in awe at how quickly and effectively my younger colleagues transmit their latest thoughts and results, leading to some real and rapid advances, and decreasing redundant studies. This #oldguy is impressed.
We have new methods, treatments, and diagnostics that are being used to peel back the darkness, from super-sensitive assays of chemical levels in bees and hive products (e.g., http://science.sciencemag.org/content/358/6359/109) to genetic screens for stress and disease (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jviromet.2017.07.013), to hive monitors like the one in my backyard that reports to the web day and night (thanks www.hivetool.net).
We have systematic surveys that are amassing great insights into what happens just before colonies thrive or die, where those colonies are positioned, and how their beekeepers treated them. In the U.S., the Bee Informed Partnership and affiliated efforts (www.beeinformed.org) and the USDA-NASS national bee health survey (www.nass.usda.gov) provide fascinating and robust insights into losses from prior years, and they are only getting better. Worldwide, the COLOSS network (www.coloss.org) helps coordinate and advertise similar efforts and fights to make survey datasets available to researchers and the public.
Most importantly, we work with a truly resilient organism that needs help right now but can also do a lot on her own.
I am afraid this review will raise hackles among those who see the many challenges to honey bees and other pollinators. I do not pretend we live in perfect times. The threats to pollinators are numerous. But to those who say tone down the smiles until things get better, I say fiddlesticks, give me Pharrell any time over Morrissey. Can’t wait until Spring, and counting on better times for beekeepers.
Jay Evans is the Research Leader for the USDA Honey Bee Lab in Beltsville, MD.