Robbie Shell and Sam Torres discuss the crisis facing honeybees

It’s just a tiny insect, but the humble honeybee has a huge impact on our way of life. Aside from providing honey, honeybees are responsible for pollinating a majority of the crops consumed in the United States and around the world, from blueberry patches in Maine to almond groves in California. But honeybees are facing both natural and manmade threats that are killing them by the millions. A major result of these threats — colony collapse disorder — is already being felt in the beekeeping industry, which has reported astounding losses in recent years.

Robbie Shell, who previously was the editorial director at Knowledge at Wharton, has written a book for middle grade kids titled Bees on the Roof that calls attention to the scope of these problems. Her book is part of a recent trend in publishing called “environmental fiction,” which combines a fictional story with factual information to help readers gain a better understanding of an issue related to our environment. Shell hopes her book will teach young people about the importance of honeybees and other pollinators and perhaps even inspire some to become beekeepers, like the kids in Bees on the Roof.

She recently spoke about the situation facing honeybees on the Knowledge at Wharton radio show on SiriusXM Channel 111 along with Sam Torres, a beekeeper and horticulturalist who owns Keystone Colonies near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Knowledge at Wharton: What spurred you to write Bees on the Roof?

Robbie Shell: It started five years ago when my brother, who’s a backyard beekeeper in Philadelphia, brought me a jar of honey. It was so delicious that I decided to research how honey is made and the little insects that make it. I started reading books. I did web searches. I went to bee demos at nature centers, and the more I got immersed in honeybees, the more I realized that they are amazing insects and we still don’t know a whole lot about them. What we do know is they have very sophisticated navigation systems, communication systems, food production systems — probably more efficient than many of the systems humans have.

What really hooked me was when I saw a video of bees marching out of a shoe box-sized package that was sent through the mail to a beekeeper in Pennsylvania. They were marching single file out of this package — no pushing, no shoving, no one trying to get ahead of each other. They were just intent on getting out of the box into their new home, setting up the hive, taking care of the queen. It was almost inspirational to me: the idea that you could have a society where there were no prima donnas, including the queen, who by the way has a very tough life ahead of her. Instead, they’re all focused on the common good. Plus, I’m kind of the human equivalent of the female worker bee. I thought, “This is a matriarchal society where females rule. There’s no king. There are a few lazy drones whose only job is to mate with the queen, and then they’re toast. They die or they’re kicked out of the hive.”

“We have a big problem. People recognize what it is, but no one is willing to launch a concerted effort to help the bees.” –Robbie Shell

I wrote an essay for The Wall Street Journal on how much I loved honeybees. In it, I said I thought I might write a book. Well, when you say that, everyone says, “So where’s the book? How is it coming?” As I continued my research, I came across colony collapse disorder. It’s a devastating syndrome that’s killing millions of honeybees in the United States and around the world, and it’s very damaging to agriculture, to commercial bee keepers and to consumers.

Knowledge at Wharton: Bees are a part of the agriculture industry that is not thought of very often.

Shell: They’re not, yet they add $15 billion worth of value to crops every year. Put another way, about 70 of the top 100 crops in the U.S. are pollinated by honeybees, including most of the vegetables, fruits and nuts that we eat. Meanwhile, in this past year, 42% of the hives collapsed. That’s a huge number compared with about 31% over the last 10 years. So, we have a big problem. People recognize what it is, but no one is willing to launch a concerted effort to help the bees.

Knowledge at Wharton: Sam, could you explain colony collapse disorder and the impact that it’s having?

Sam Torres: Colony collapse disorder is an event which was first [identified] in 2006 by David Hackenberg, a commercial beekeeper from Pennsylvania. He experienced a 60% to 80% loss of his colonies. If he has 1,000 colonies, it means almost his whole business was wiped out. What happens then is that you’re very limited in what you’re able to do because you’re experiencing these types of losses every single year. It’s costing beekeepers more and more money every year to keep their bees.

Colony collapse disorder is a combination of things — monoculture cropping, unsustainable practices in beekeeping, and diseases and pathogens we did not experience 20 years ago. We are experiencing them now, the major one being the varroa mite. If you ball your fist and put it up to your body, that is the proportion that a varroa mite has to a honeybee’s body. The varroa mite itself does not kill the honeybee. It sucks out its blood and debilitates the bee to the point where it is no longer able to combat the pathogens that it would normally be able to [fight off].

Knowledge at Wharton: So once it has the mite, it’s pretty much over for the honeybee — especially if the mite is able to work within the body of the bee for a decent amount of time?

Torres: That’s correct. What’s happening now in beekeeping is we’re shifting towards learning to live with the varroa mite. We’ve realized that this is not going anywhere, so we [kill the mites] by, for example, using organic chemicals like thymol, which is derived from thyme.

Knowledge at Wharton: In South Carolina, millions of bees were wiped out because of spraying for the Zika virus.

Shell: That gets to another one of the causes of colony collapse disorder, which is insecticides. There is a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids, which are sprayed on the plants and the seeds of plants. It’s thought that they circulate in the plant tissues and [get picked up by] the bees as they are pollinating the flowers. Some scientists believe these neonics affect the bee’s nervous system and make them unable to find their way home. If they can’t find their way home, they can’t support the hive and the hive collapses. So, that’s a direct impact, a direct cause of colony collapse disorder.

To be fair to both sides, the big chemical manufacturers like Bayer and Monsanto and Syngenta claim that their products are not the problem and that these insecticides are necessary to protect our food supply and economy. They say it’s varroa mites and small hive beetles and a lot of viruses that get into the hives [that are to blame]. Also, even some beekeepers spray their hives with pesticides. A story in The New York Times said a typical hive has residues of 120 different pesticides.

It’s a combination of all these, plus the fact that with rising crop prices, farmers are taking what used to be fields of wild flowers and planting them, often with just one crop, so the bees aren’t getting that diverse nutrition anymore. The bees essentially are being assaulted on all sides.

My book was aimed at middle-school students because the publisher, Tumblehome Learning, has a philosophy that if you don’t reach kids by the seventh grade and teach them the STEM disciplines, then you’ve lost them. Bees on the Roof is an environmental fiction book: The fiction is the story I wove around four seventh-graders. The environmental part is the factual part about bees and colony collapse disorder and what a disaster we’re headed for.

[In the book,] four kids set up bee hives on the roof of a Manhattan Hotel as a way to win their science competition. [I wanted] to show that kids [can be] beekeepers and should be encouraged to get involved in taking care of the environment.

Knowledge at Wharton: On the business side, there is so much more use of honey in a variety of different things. How stable of an industry is it right now?

Torres: Right now, one of the things that we’re also experiencing is a large amount of importation of honey. Colony collapse disorder [means that] beekeepers in the United States [can’t] meet the demand that consumers here have for honey. In this country, we consume a lot of honey, and 80% of that just last year came from imports. A lot of it came from India and Vietnam and countries that are not scrutinized like we are when it comes to health. For example, if honey is coming from India and [is labeled] “organic,” it is organic by India’s standards. It is by no means organic under the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“My book was aimed at middle-school students because the publisher … has a philosophy that if you don’t reach kids by the seventh grade and teach them the STEM disciplines, you’ve lost them.” –Robbie Shell

Knowledge at Wharton: In terms of the amount of honey that you’re able to produce annually, how much are you hurt by what’s going on with colony collapse disorder?

Torres: In my colonies, what I’ve seen is pretty much the same amount of losses, which is around 40%. In my first year keeping bees, I purchased three colonies. That winter, I had two of them die. The next year, I purchased two more colonies and split the existing colony that I had.

Knowledge at Wharton: What is the cost of a colony?

Torres: Just the bees themselves can be $150 to $200. That does not include any of the equipment required to maintain the bees in good health.

Knowledge at Wharton: We’ve gotten to the point where you have farmers from the East Coast going to the West Coast during the peak times of the growing seasons for a lot of these products. Has that been a shift that’s really happened over the last couple of decades or has that been the norm?

Torres: We have started to see a huge shift in migratory beekeeping because that is what makes the most amount of money in the beekeeping industry. Honey sale is second to pollination services. Anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 colonies are packed on pallets on flatbed trucks going across the country. The beekeepers are getting about $150 per colony.

Knowledge at Wharton: These beekeepers have to do this to be able to survive at this point?

Torres:  That’s correct. If someone is looking into the beekeeping industry and looking to be a commercial beekeeper, he is not looking to be a honey producer. He is looking to be a migratory beekeeper offering pollination services to the various farms that we have in this country. They range all the way from Maine to California to Florida.

Knowledge at Wharton: Because of some of the factors you laid out, you could be looking at a much different industry in the future.

Shell:  You could be. Just to boost what Sam said, I was recently out at a commercial beekeeper’s farm in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He said he used to be in this for honey, [which he described as] a messy, ugly, sloppy business [that didn’t generate enough revenue]. Now, I think he has 2,000 hives, and he’s carting those hives around the country. This is not going to change. The bees are either at a stable point now or they could continue to die off, which means that farmers everywhere are going to need to keep importing bees to pollinate their crops.

Knowledge at Wharton: Most people are afraid of bees. They want to get away from them, swat at them.

Shell: That’s a good point. I initially went into this thinking, “Wow, I don’t want to get near a honeybee. I don’t want to get stung.” Actually, honeybees will not sting you unless you step on them or get in their flight path or in any way disrupt their business. If you’ve been stung, it’s most likely been by a yellow jacket. Yellow jackets and hornets are much more aggressive. It takes not that much provocation to get them riled up around you. Of course, the worst are the African killer bees, which were brought over to Brazil in the 1950s as a way to mate with the tamer European bees. Unfortunately, these African honeybees escaped quarantine and eventually came up to the U.S. They do make a lot of honey, but if you get in their way at all, they will chase you for a quarter of a mile. Up to 40,000 of them will go after you. They can kill you. I’m not intending to scare people because there really aren’t any around here. But it’s just something to be aware of — that when people say they’re afraid of bees, it’s not honeybees that are the problem.

“Colony collapse disorder [means that] beekeepers in the United States [can’t] meet the demand that consumers here have for honey.”  –Sam Torres

Knowledge at Wharton: How are honeybees connected to Brexit? I saw a couple of the articles about how [this problem] has the potential to have the same type of economic impact [in Europe] as a lot of the farmers and beekeepers are seeing here in the United States.

Shell: That’s right, and it also involves the whole question of pesticides. Right now, Britain has a temporary ban on pesticides. The question is, will they keep it? Will they have to negotiate these bans with the individual countries now because there’s no central umbrella organization? It’s one of the side issues of Brexit, but it shows how universal the problem of protecting honeybees is.

Knowledge at Wharton: What needs to be done to look out for them more? People will probably say, “Why are we worried about bees?” But we go back to $15 billion worth of value in terms of crops.

Shell: It’s a good question. One of the articles I read said honeybees are kind of the canary in the coal mine, that they’re the first sign that we are mistreating our environment in a very serious way. [In a case in South Carolina where spraying for the zika virus] ended up killing two million bees, it was a mistake. [The commercial beekeeper] was not notified properly that they were going to be spraying, so she wasn’t able to take protective measures. It could just be that the farmers who spray the crops need to do a better job of doing it at times when the honeybees are not as affected — maybe at night because honeybees don’t go out at night. There also have to be more attempts to control the varroa mites and small hive beetles.

Torres: For the everyday person, the way that you can help with the whole honeybee epidemic is … to go on the internet, find out what pollinator-friendly plants are native to your area and throw a couple of seeds in the ground. I promise you it will look 10 times better than the lawn you have outside. You might end up seeing some things you’ve never seen before, like monarch butterflies and other native pollinators.

Knowledge at Wharton: Almonds are a big benefactor of honeybees in California, but fruits are a big benefactor as well, correct?

Torres:  Yes. Blueberries, cranberries, peaches, apples. There’s a wide, wide variety. And the ones I just mentioned, that’s just in the Northeast.

Shell: When I was talking to some kids about this, I said, “You know, the watermelon seed-spitting contest that you have in the summer? You’re not going to have those anymore. And the pumpkins you carve at Halloween? You’re not going to have those anymore because bees pollinate those, too.” Meanwhile, a lot of people use honey for therapeutic reasons. There’s a huge number of claims made about what honey can do for you, and some of them are pretty exaggerated. But not all. [Honey is] seen to help in wound care, for example. Manuka honey in New Zealand was recently written about in The Wall Street Journal. There’s a fight going on because the New Zealand manuka honey producers are trying to trademark this [product] given that it is so valuable. I think they can sell it for 10 times more than any other kind of honey. And Australia is a little angry because they also produce manuka honey and they don’t want the word trademarked.

Knowledge at Wharton: You mentioned what’s going on in Europe because of the Brexit, but are other areas of the globe facing these types of problems?

Shell: Absolutely. A global assessment of threats to pollinators said that plants that depend on pollination make up 35% of global crop production. That’s as much as $577 billion a year. Plus, agriculture employs millions of people. It’s definitely a global issue. I think one of the biggest honey producers is China.

“If someone is … looking to be a commercial beekeeper, he is not looking to be a honey producer. He is looking to be a migratory beekeeper offering pollination services to the various farms that we have in this country.” –Sam Torres

Knowledge at Wharton: India and Vietnam are also very big honey producers. To put it into perspective, Vietnam is one of the largest honey producers at 45,000 tons a year, and we are their biggest customer at 40,000 tons a year.

Knowledge at Wharton: This is a book that will benefit a lot of people, but you geared it more toward kids so that they have an understanding of what this is all about and the potential problems, so we don’t have these issues 10, 15, 20 years down the road.

Shell: That’s right. I started out thinking I would write an adult nonfiction book about bees. Then I realized that there are probably 5,000 books on that topic out there, and I’m not a biologist or an entomologist. I eventually came around to a book that would be attractive to young people. The idea of writing fiction was very appealing because as a business journalist, I always had to check facts and check quotes, and here I could make things up. I could make up the story, although I did do a lot of fact-checking about the bees.

I think you can reach kids at this age and teach them that they can have an impact on the environment, that it’s not just an adult thing. They can actually start beekeeping enterprises. There was a story recently about an 11-year-old girl in Austin, Texas, who started up a little business called Me & the Bees Lemonade. She now has a distribution agreement with Whole Foods. Bees bring out the entrepreneurial instinct in kids. Just learning about bees and beekeeping emphasizes all those things I talked about in the beginning — teamwork, efficiency, no place for [disruptive] prima donnas. You look at our sports industry and our entertainment industry and financial services, and you just really come to appreciate the simplicity and efficiency of the bees, and also the mystery. There is still a lot we don’t know about bees. Stories in the science sections of newspapers report on new things we’re learning about genetics and the dance that bees do to let other bees know where their nectar is. It’s an endless source of research.

Knowledge at Wharton: Sam, it goes back to something that we mentioned before, that bees really are the basis of a lot of production in different realms. It’s having people understand how important bees really are in this process.

Torres: Yeah, they’re kind of the unsung heroes in this whole thing. We go to the supermarket every day and we get our fruits and our vegetables and we make our meals every night and we take for granted where all that food comes from, not only the farmers that are digging into the soil, putting the crops into the ground and making sure that everything grows, but the actual bees that make sure that your watermelon looks like a watermelon instead of looking like a peach. The crops get bigger and more abundant once the bees are on them. It’s no surprise that pollination is such a huge industry because without it, we wouldn’t have the same amount of crops.