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Why Honeybees Are The Wrong Problem To Solve

A rendering of Pollinator Pathways across the U.S. Courtesy of Ian Webster hide caption

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Courtesy of Ian Webster

A rendering of Pollinator Pathways across the U.S.

Courtesy of Ian Webster

A lot of people think of Sarah Bergmann as the "Honeybee Lady," and that really annoys her.

It's an attribution that might make sense at first glance, given that Bergmann is the celebrated creator of what's called the Pollinator Pathway project. So, pollinators, honeybees — what's the problem?

Well, spend a little time with Bergmann and you'll see that the issue she's trying to address with the Pollinator Pathway is way bigger than honeybees and their current colony collapse disorder troubles. In fact, for Bergmann, the honeybees are actually part of a much bigger problem she's trying to solve. And that much bigger problem is nothing less than how to design the planet in a human-dominated age.

The basic idea of Bergmann's Pollinator Pathway is to connect landscapes that have been broken up by human development. The goal is to allow pollinators to move as they need to, in order to do their good work. Bergmann, a designer by training, has won various kinds of attention for the Pollinator Pathway project, including a Genius Award from Seattle's The Stranger magazine, as well as articles in Popular Science, GRIST and even an NPR story a few years back.

But Bergmann has found that almost everyone she talks to misses the point of her work. The problem starts when people hear "pollinator" and assume the project is about honeybees. But for Bergmann, honeybees aren't the ones with the problem, they're part of the problem.

"I don't mean that to be an [deleted expletive]," she told Atlas Obscura magazine in a story about her work. "The entire basis of my work is basically: Don't save anything, and certainly don't save the honeybee."

If that seems like a radical statement, that's because Sarah Bergmann thinks on radically large scales. She believes we've got the environment and our place in it all wrong, especially in this dawning era of climate change. She told me:

"I made the Pollinator Pathway to bring about a shift in environmental imagination. I'm saying that we aren't thinking big enough for the world we live in. It's about thinking less like conservationists, and a lot more like designers. Moving away from ideas of restoration and conservation, and moving toward the idea that we are active participants in the design of the planet."

From Bergmann's perspective, everything living designs the environment.

"We live in a designed world," she explains. "I mean this in the sense of the built world — everything from our sneakers to our highways and even our national parks — but also the design of all species."

She gives the example of how a beaver organizes not just the shape but also the behavior of the pond it inhabits.

"The design of other species also holds together the physical shape and behavior of the world," she says. "We are beneficiaries of this design."

So how does this relate to the honeybees?

"This is about connecting landscapes," Bergmann explains. "And what that really means is, plants."

Plants create the basic fabric of ecosystems that define different kinds of landscapes. And pollinators, for Bergmann, are just the sex life of plants. It's at this point that Bergmann's insights into the "design" of the natural world really hit their stride. We may think of honeybees as nature's pollinator extraordinaire but they are, in fact, anything but natural.

"Honeybees were part of a massive transformation of landscape now called the Columbian Exchange," Bergmann says. From the 15th to 18th centuries, Europeans relocated animal and plant species around the world via trade and travel at an unprecedented rate in Earth's history. That's how honeybees got here. They were purposeful imports from Europe. Then they escaped and went feral into the landscape (they were called the white man's fly by Native Americans). Remarkably, after a while people just thought of them as natural.

But then the story shifts again. These days, almost all honeybees are working for Big Agriculture. Trucked in boxes with road trip "pollen patty" food, they make their way across the country, stopping in different states as the agricultural season progresses.

So for Bergmann, modern honeybees are part a wave of purposeful design.

"It was the global scaling up of agriculture," she says. "We designed a system that required an outside pollinator in order to produce food, because, by design, these landscapes [of Big Agriculture] have no biodiversity."

Pollination services, which are what the road-tripping honeybees provide, are a new industry that was born from the choices we were making about our land use. For Bergmann, these sprawling farms "are economic landscapes, pared down to a handful of components that now make up our industrial food supply: seed, soil, water, fertilizer, pesticide, time — and now pollination services."

So while people began fretting for the honeybees after colony collapse disorder (CCD) hit the news, Bergmann's larger point that honeybees are actually bit pollination players in most natural landscapes got lost. She says the bulk of pollination in the natural world is really being carried off by other kinds of bees as well as bats, butterflies, moths, flies, midges and more. And these are the pollinators she's interested in building pathways for — because they're ones that represent thriving and diverse ecosystems.

And while huge monoculture industrial farms may provide much of our food right now, their species "simplicity" is exactly their vulnerability (as the CCD illustrates). So from Bergmann's perspective, thriving, diverse ecosystems are exactly what we need to "design" into a future that includes a thriving biosphere with a big honking project of civilization in it.

In the final analysis, Bergmann's Pollinator Pathway is the ultimate "think globally act locally" kind of project. A specific city might think about how to create specific corridors that allow natural pollinators to move through its domains and connect outer, fragmented "natural" landscapes. But hiding within the project is a much deeper vision of how to understand the human future in the Anthropocene.

The distinctions between natural and human landscapes will have to be redefined as our activity touches every aspect of the planet's operation. It is in this way that we must come to understand how to make choices — how to design our interactions with the rest of the world to ensure that everyone and everything thrives.

And that's how Sarah Bergmann is on to something much bigger than honeybees.


Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described "evangelist of science." You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4