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To save the bees or not to save the bees: honey bee health in the Anthropocene

Abstract

As honey bee colonies continue to perish at high rates, beekeepers are divided on how best to keep bees healthy and productive. In this article, I describe the tensions between conventional beekeepers and a new wave of beekeepers hoping to “save the bees” through a more “natural” approach to beekeeping. Drawing on animal studies and multispecies literature, I show how beekeepers in both camps are constrained by the reality of the Anthropocene: novel ecologies, shifting baselines, and the hybridity of honey bees themselves—part wild animal subject to environmental change, part industrial organism, embedded in circuits of migratory pollination. Beekeepers on both sides are investing in genetics as a solution to honey bee health problems. Thinking with bees helps deepen the literature on multispecies encounters and interrogate the idea of sustainability in agriculture, while thinking with the Anthropocene prompts us to ask what “saving the bees” even means in today’s changing world.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    This survey data on colonies and losses has many limitations, but it is the best available.

  2. 2.

    Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.

  3. 3.

    Honey bees may vector diseases that affect native bees and compete with them for resources more broadly, although the ecological evidence is mixed on the overall effect of honey bees on native bees.

Abbreviations

CCD:

Colony collapse disorder

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Acknowledgements

This research has been supported in part by a partnership between Oxfam and the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future (Cornell University), as well as the Toward Sustainability Foundation. Emily Baker, Justine Lindemann, and anonymous reviewers provided helpful comments on earlier drafts.

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Correspondence to Eleanor Andrews.

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Andrews, E. To save the bees or not to save the bees: honey bee health in the Anthropocene. Agric Hum Values 36, 891–902 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10460-019-09946-x

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Keywords

  • Beekeeping
  • Honey bees
  • Anthropocene
  • Novel ecologies
  • Hybridity