Colony Collapse and the Global Swarm to Save the Bees

Pollinator activists around the world have taken different tactics to address the problem of massive bee die-offs. The pesticides of modern agriculture, especially neonicotinoids, have been discovered as a prime factor in the complex web of human activities leading to dwindling bee populations. Many large-scale agricultural operations, such as almond farmers wholly dependent on bees for pollination, also express concern for the future of their crops. The costs of ecosystem services and technological work-arounds have been the dominant discourses of major conventional agricultural firms faced with business complications due to the bees’ fate. Many environmentalists, however, see bees as more than merely dollar signs with wings: the destiny of the bee has been coded as intimately connected with the fate of humans, a clear indicator of everything wrong with industrial agriculture, as well as industrial civilization. Massive bee die-off has been likened to a “genocide” because of the fact that deliberate or not, a large percentage of the extant bee population has been poisoned through the global use of industrial pesticides. And up until recently, this sacrifice has been deemed “acceptable.”

Framing colony collapse “disorder” (whose “disorder” is this? Ours? Or the bees?) as not merely an instrumental matter of agricultural inconvenience, but of multispecies solidarity and biocultural justice indicates the symbolic value and emotional attachment the deaths these crucial creatures have evoked for environmental activists. This battle indeed has taken on spiritual dimensions. Activists have mobilized an array of responses, attacking the problem at every facet with remarkable alacrity and success. Groups have sued the US EPA for insufficient oversight in allowing neonicotinoids; the EU voted in 2013 for a two-year restriction of the chemicals. Entire regions have responded by effectively banning neonicotinoids. Other activist organizations have pressured companies like Home Depot and Lowes – the intermediaries between the chemical manufactures and the farmers applying these deadly pesticides to their crops – to stop selling the chemicals. Countless individuals worldwide have taken up bee keeping as resistance, and innumerable businesses now make claims to bee-sensitivity. Neonicotinoids may go the way of CFCs (the chemicals most successfully banned internationally to date).

The seeming success of activist-citizens to galvanize (social) media, as well as those (politically) complicit in colony collapse, nonetheless must be cross-examined. Ingolfur Blühdorn’s pronouncement that we live in an age of “post-ecological politics” when environmental concerns only play a role in political decision-making as cover for other motives and are not taken as ends unto themselves, is evident in tech firms developing robot bee drones and methods of artificial pollination in addition to chemical firms defending their bee-killing products. Is bee-saving only on the political agenda until a sufficient ersatz is found? On the other hand, bee supporters have effectively caught public sentiment and corporate sympathy alike to achieve actual political results. It remains to be seen, however, if this movement has achieved success through overriding industrial agricultural interests, or if rallying around the death of our pollinators has brought unity and meaning to an otherwise diffused environmental struggle.