I was having lunch with my nephew and talking about animals, when he asked if I’d seen the video of bees playing by rolling balls. The video, included in a study published in October in Animal Behaviour, had been such a sensation it trickled all the way down to Gen Z. I can understand why. “That bees may play is an important finding because it provides further evidence that an insect may experience something like pleasure,” says the study’s first author Samadi Galpayage, a PhD student at Queen Mary University of London.
Bees are known as hard workers, forever going from one flower to another to gather food and provide pollination services. To see one stop to engage with colorful balls slightly larger than them — perching on top and using their wings and legs to stay on top of the ball even as it tried to roll them over — is undeniably charming. “Bees are more than little robotic beings,” says Galpayage, noting that they “have a richer behavior and life than we would have previously thought.”
When people say “bee” these days, a honeybee is most likely to spring to mind, but the bees in this study were actually bumblebees, procured from a company that supplies bees for commercial pollination services more often than science experiments. Though bumblebees can still be commonly found in gardens, they don’t get as much attention as their honey-making relatives. Yet, just like the better publicized honeybees and other pollinators, bumblebees are in trouble.
In North America, 12 of our 50 species of bumblebees are considered at-risk. The rusty patched bumblebee was put on the endangered species list in 2017. “There’s a whole lot of things going on that are stressing bees,” says Rich Hatfield, Senior Conservation Biologist at the Xerces Society. He lists habitat loss, climate change, pesticides and insecticides as major factors in bee health. Yet in the case of the bumblebee, they may be disappearing under our noses, at least in part because of their use in agriculture.
Bumblebees are what’s known as buzz pollinators. Some plants “lock up” their pollen in such a way that the only way to get it out is to shake it, Hatfield says. “Honeybees either can’t or are too lazy to do this.” But it’s the bumblebee’s specialty. This makes them particularly valuable pollinators for crops like blueberries, tomatoes, bell pepper or eggplant, which need buzz pollination.
In the 1990s, farmers began growing tomatoes in greenhouses to have them year-round. The industry quickly grew as people became accustomed to having something red on their plates whenever we wanted it. By 2017, USDA data showed that 56 percent of imported tomatoes and 32 percent of domestic tomatoes were grown in greenhouses. While some of those tomatoes could be pollinated by hand, many farmers began buying colonies of bumblebees and using them to pollinate these indoor crops.
Then, those commercial bumblebees got sick. There was an outbreak of Nosema bombi in breeding facilities that coincided with a rise in the same fungal pathogen in wild species. Domesticating these bees had led to a disease outbreak in the wild. It wasn’t long after this that numbers of bumblebee species like the endangered rusty patch or critically endangered Franklin’s bumblebee (which hasn’t been seen since 2006) began to drop.
“This commercial bumblebee industry is believed to be the leading cause of decline we’ve seen in wild bumblebees,” Hatfield says. At the very least, he’d like to see mandated disease testing for commercial bee stock before they’re sent out to farms across the country.
Other pollinators used as livestock are also causing problems for the bumblebee. Honeybees brought into an area as pollinators often spread disease to wild species and can out-compete native pollinators for food. It’s easy to use trucked honeybees for pollination but, Hatfield says, there is an increasing body of research that shows native pollinators can do just as good of a job if farmers will just put suitable habitat near the fields. “[Bumblebees] are definitely out there contributing likely billions of dollars to the global agricultural industry and providing those services largely for free,” Hatfield says. Unfortunately, free labor is often unvalued when you’re an insect.
Wild Bees in Peril
In 2006, news began to break about a mysterious problem plaguing beekeepers across America — honeybees were dying in unprecedented numbers from a mysterious illness. This issue, eventually called Colony Collapse Disorder, became a rallying cry for the pollination industry, which trucks honeybees across the United States to pollinate crops like almonds, and generates up to $320 million a year in income for farmers. Industry groups banded together to protect the honeybee, even though they’re a non-native species and essentially treated as livestock.
Reducing pesticides and insecticides is good for all insects but while some farmers have been changing spray practices to protect honeybees, it isn’t always enough for wild species. In the last 40 years, insect populations as a whole have declined by 45 percent. Many of these species are declining for the same reasons bumblebees are in trouble.
“Our wild bees have different exposure pathways to pesticides that our honeybees don’t,” says Hatfield. Many wild species nest in the ground, which means they can be affected by pesticides not just on plants but from runoff in the water and soil. “The honeybees don’t have that exposure so it’s not being thought about when pesticides are approved.”
Other than some charismatic insects like butterflies, too many people only care about insects because of what they can do for us. In the Animal Behaviour study, the authors note that they weren’t required to get licenses or permits for the experiment because no legislation protects bumblebees in research. The colonies don’t live long, Galpayage notes, but they try to give them a good life in the lab. “In the past we have used ‘retired’ colonies in an art project called Beeonardo da Vinci,” Galpayage says. The bees walked on vegan food dye, leaving colorful footprint trails all over sheets of white paper. (“These pieces of ‘bee art’ were then sold to raise money for bumblebee conservation,” Galpayage adds.)
Wild bees may be too busy worrying about finding enough food and avoiding predators to play, Galpayage says. It would be hard to study since they either live underground or fly quickly over large ranges to search for food. “Having said this, wheel running in mice has long been thought to be a behavior resulting from captivity, but it turns out that wild mice engage in wheel running too!” Far from being dumb insects, the more we’ve studied bees the more fascinating behaviors we’ve uncovered.
While bees harvest from plants in order to feed themselves, the relationship is symbiotic. Without bees, the plants aren’t pollinated and can’t reproduce. So far, we’ve been taking billions of dollars of work from bees without giving back much in exchange — removing habitat, poisoning them with pesticides or insecticides and contributing to disease spread. It’s time to do more for the bees who do so much for us.
Tove Danovich is a freelance journalist and the author of Under the Henfluence: Inside the World of Backyard Chickens and the People Who Love Them.