Why Are Bees Dying? It's Not What You Might Think : Short Wave A deadly triangle of factors is killing off U.S. honeybees. Last year, forty percent of honeybee colonies died in the U.S., continuing an alarming trend. Entomologist Sammy Ramsey tells host Maddie Sofia about the "three P's" and what listeners can do to help our fuzzy-flighted friends.

Honeybees Need Your Help, Honey

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MADDIE SOFIA, HOST:

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Maddie Sofia here. Today, a non-coronavirus episode for you about honeybees from a guy who knows all about them - Sammy Ramsey, aka Dr. Buggs.

So first of all, can I just ask you how you got that nickname?

SAMMY RAMSEY: So I actually got that title, Dr. Buggs, while working at the Supreme Court of the United States.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

RAMSEY: I worked at the Supreme Court in the (laughter) - I know, I know. I was the only intern entomology major, and the deputy clerk of the court referred to me as Buggs. And then when I told him that I was going for my doctorate, he's like, oh, Dr. Buggs.

SOFIA: So honestly, the Supreme Court folks just did not know how to handle you're an entomologist, and all they could do was just yell bugs.

RAMSEY: (Laughter) They really did not know what to do with that.

SOFIA: And of course, the nickname stuck, which is perfect for Sammy, a honeybee researcher at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Also, props to the Supreme Court for taking an entomology intern, the best science. Yeah, I said it. OK. So honeybees play an important role in our ecosystem and for our economy. But the bees themselves, as you might have heard, are not doing so hot.

RAMSEY: We lost about 40% of our honeybee colonies last year, which was deeply concerning. And unfortunately, it's continued a trend over the past decade or so of us losing close to 30% of our bees every year.

SOFIA: And that could have huge consequences for all of us. So today on the show, what's killing the bees? Sammy Ramsey tells us what's driving these die-offs, including a wild critter straight out of a horror movie. And he tells us what we can do to help the bees.

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SOFIA: So, Sammy, your friends, the honeybees - they're not doing well. Can you give us a quick snapshot of why that matters?

RAMSEY: Honeybees are dramatically important to the environment in a number of different ways. We could survive without them. We would just be really, really bummed out because we would lose things like coffee, avocados, lemons, limes, oranges. So many different fruits and vegetables are pollinated by honeybees. And while they wouldn't disappear entirely, the huge amounts that we produce them in would simply be unsustainable, and they would become incredibly expensive, prohibitively so. Honeybees are worth more than $18 billion to the U.S. economy every single year primarily because of their pollination services.

SOFIA: And the die-offs that you mentioned earlier - is this at all related to, you know, news reports that came out a few years back about bees kind of vanishing? Is that related to this at all, or is that a different thing?

RAMSEY: Ooh. OK, here we go. So now you are talking about the colony collapse disorder. The defining quality was really that you would open a colony that had been fairly productive just days before, and there would be pretty much no bees there. We have not seen that particular set of issues in more than half a decade now. We don't know whether it was a virus, whether was a novel parasite, whether it was just the confluence of all of these different issues all coming together that the bees have been dealing with with stress and climate change because it disappeared so sharply that we still haven't had the time to fully flesh out what occurred there.

SOFIA: OK, so that is not what's going on now. That has subsided. We're not exactly sure what caused it. We're not exactly sure what ended it, but we're glad it's gone. So let's talk about the actual issues that's making it hard for the bees to survive now.

RAMSEY: So there's a triangle of factors called the three Ps, and that stands for parasites, pesticides and poor nutrition. These are the three main issues currently impacting honeybees. Now, while colony collapse disorder is not still the problem, it did open our eyes to the fact that our bees are really unhealthy. What is potentially the case is that colony collapse disorder wasn't the issue the bees were dealing with but just sort of the punctuation mark at the end of a very long and very concerning sentence about the state of honeybees around the world.

SOFIA: So let's talk about the first P, the parasites. You study that one that sounds like, honestly, to me, a Transformer. Tell me about that one.

RAMSEY: (Laughter) Varroa destructor does sound like a transformer. And while you might think that name is melodramatic, it's not. I mean, this parasite is off-the-wall wacky. This parasite - small, about 1.2 millimeters long - it climbs onto a bee, and it will actually wedge itself between the exoskeletal plates that make up the bee's body - so pretty much the bee's skin. It wedges itself under there, kind of levers one of the plates up and breaks through the skin under that with its mouth parts. And it releases this cocktail of digestive enzymes that break down the tissue in that region into a slurry. It's literally turning the bees into cream of honeybee soup and then sucking that out of their body, so - deeply concerning.

SOFIA: Oh, you didn't have to say that with the soup.

RAMSEY: Yeah (laughter). Sorry. I...

SOFIA: It's a very good metaphor, but you didn't have to do it.

RAMSEY: (Laughter) Well, I want people to understand the horror story that honeybees are living through on a regular basis. It gives us more of a respect for them, you know?

SOFIA: Yeah. OK, so let me get this right. So this particular parasite, this varroa mite, you know - the way that it acts on the bees is extremely destructive, and it also kind of opens them up to suffer even more from poor nutrition.

RAMSEY: Exactly.

SOFIA: So let's talk about poor nutrition. What does, you know, food for a bee look like, and why aren't they having as much access to it as they need?

RAMSEY: Great question. So honeybees - they visit tons and tons of flowers, and they drink the nectar from these flowers. They transport it back to the colony. They regurgitate it into the cells. They dehydrate it and turn it into honey. They also collect pollen from these flowers, and all that pollen is used as a source of protein to then rear their offspring.

So when these bees don't have a lot of pollen or nectar, they begin to starve, and they go into this stressed-out sort of crisis mode. There's a lot of stress that they deal with as a result of that. And unfortunately, it's not just the matter of starvation but them having a diet that is not diverse. That can be really problematic. An individual who's constantly eating french fries isn't starving, but they don't have the full complement of nutrition that they need in order to be healthy.

And that's sort of the scenario that we have the bees in at this point, and that doesn't allow the bees the sort of diversity that they need when they're feeding. So much of our land has been turned over for, of course, the development for agriculture, so there's a lot of monocultures out there of plants producing the exact same nutritive components in their pollen.

SOFIA: OK. So final P, pesticides - what are we talking about, exactly, and what's kind of the problem?

RAMSEY: Pesticides, when used responsibly, can be very effective at reducing the numbers of destructive insects that are destroying crops and keeping the cost of producing these crops down. Now we have a lot of pesticides that are systemic. They're absorbed by the seed, and they end up in different parts of the plant, such as the pollen or the nectar, that is then collected by the bees and brought back to the colony. And it moves all through the colony.

In addition to that, there are chemicals like miticides mixed in with the herbicides and weed killers that people have sprayed on their lawn mixed with the agricultural insecticides. And while those chemicals may be used responsibly, we actually don't know what the interacting impact is for all of those different chemicals together. We've found that colonies on average have between 3 and 4 different chemicals in the colony at any one point and upwards of 14 sometimes, which can be really concerning because we just can't account for all of the different effects that that can have.

SOFIA: Got you. Got you. So, OK, Sammy, if we as humans don't take actions to intervene, you know, what do people that study these bees think is going to happen?

RAMSEY: Ooh. OK, if we don't take action to intervene, I can tell you very clearly there's going to be a dramatic economic impact. Without the bees, we would still be able to produce those plants, and native pollinators would take up some of the slack. But we would not be able to produce them in nearly the large amounts that we produce them in.

But I do want to say very clearly that this is being blown out of proportion by the magic of the Internet. People think that everyone will die if the bees disappear. But there are plenty of wind-pollinated plants - corn, rice - that cultures have lived off of for ages, and they've been fine. The problem is we would lose so much diversity in our diet, and food would be a lot more expensive because there would be a massive drop in supply.

SOFIA: Got you. So, OK, what kind of solutions or things that we can do as a society would have the most impact in helping the honeybee?

RAMSEY: Something wonderful that anyone can do - leave those dandelions alone. Don't mow the lawn in a way that is getting rid of all of the different dandelions and things that we typically consider to be weeds. The wildflowers that spring up in your lawn - bees love them. Leave them alone - no more weed killer on those.

And if you really want to be a huge help, plant tons of flowers in your front and backyard. Make a bee sanctuary out of your living space. If more people did that, the issues that the bees deal with in terms of poor nutrition would be mitigated in a number of different ways because bees are capable of self-medicating. If they can get a lot of resin and different kinds of nectar and pollen from flowers, they're able to medicate themselves, but they can't do that when they only have the offerings of that one plant.

SOFIA: OK, Sammy. I appreciate you, and I appreciate the bees.

RAMSEY: That warms my heart to hear. I think bees actually really love being appreciated.

SOFIA: (Laughter) Well, don't we all? I'm going to go home and not kill any dandelions and plant some flowers.

RAMSEY: My work here is done.

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SOFIA: Sammy Ramsey, aka Dr. Buggs, entomologist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Today's episode was produced by Emily Vaughn - whoop whoop - who also checked the facts and Brit Hanson. It was edited by Viet Le. I'm Maddie Sofia, and we're back with more SHORT WAVE from NPR tomorrow.

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