“Wait, what? Bees are fish now?”
No– biologically, they are not. One court ruling in June, in which the California Third District of Appeal stated bees could face the same protection as fish and broadly defined them as “invertebrates” under the California Endangered Species Act (CESA) has sent the public into a frenzy of misunderstanding.
The loophole of “invertebrates” listed under the CESA’s Fish and Game Code was brought up repeatedly, as it still protected the Trinity bristle snail—a terrestrial invertebrate. But guess what else are terrestrial invertebrates? Bees.
The California Supreme Court settled the debate once and for all on Sept. 21, legally declaring four species of bumblebees—Bombus franklini, Bombus crotchii, Bombus suckleyi and Bombus affinis—could be protected by the California Endangered Species Act (CESA). Not everyone is satisfied with this though, especially farming groups who rely on bees for pollinating their crops.
But while everyone is nitpicking the wording of environmental classifications, the official protection of bees under CESA draws alarming implications on humanity’s food supply and what the agricultural industry must be willing to compromise for it.
Surely, it must be cause for concern if the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation has relentlessly pursued this outcome since 2018.
Among those at the forefront of the uproar over bumblebees being classified as endangered are many businesses in the agricultural industry, which is unsurprising.
One organization in particular, the Almond Alliance of California, relies heavily on honeybees to pollinate almond blossoms for all their businesses. California’s $6 billion almond industry is responsible for 80% of the world’s almonds, but this is also at the expense of the deaths of tens of billions of honeybees. Pesticide exposure, parasite diseases and habitat loss are all reasons that countless hives are getting wiped out. Honeybees have to be the most underrated livestock, yet more of them die every year than all other animals raised for slaughter combined—just so the American public can stock their fridges with almond milk.
The almond industry, and the agricultural industry in general, is extremely exploitative in its use of honeybees for large-scale farming practices. Bees are exposed to exponentially more parasites by concentrating them all in one geographic region. All honeybees are also forced into a monoculture environment instead of the biodiversity they are used to, putting further strain on the pollinators. Furthermore, neonicotinoids and various other pesticides weaken bees’ immune systems and lead to the gradual poisoning of entire colonies.
But as crucial as honeybees are for our food supply and crops, they are not native to North America—not even the ones under the protection of CESA. As there is high demand for almond products, companies continue to supply as necessary, which is proving to be an issue for native pollinators such as bumblebees. And it is the native bees that are often way more efficient at pollinating crops native to the U.S.
In one article from The Guardian, journalist Annette McGivney explains, “Environmental advocates argue that the huge, commercially driven proliferation of the European honeybees used on almond farms is itself undermining the ecosystem for all bees. Honeybees out-compete diverse native bee species for forage, and threaten the endangered species that are already struggling to survive climate change.”
Agriculture is causing commercial honeybees to severely outcompete native bees for their food source pollen as well as altering the nearby ecosystem:; honeybees have the tendency to pollinate certain invasive species as well which drastically alters the plant community.
The agricultural community was up in arms over the Supreme Court ruling because they feared the California legislation would encroach on their farming practices since companies would have more restrictions on what they can do as actions disturbing native species are being prohibited. But U.S. agriculture will have a lot more to be sorry for when they see where their greed, alongside a complete disregard for the maltreatment of bees, leads when the world’s food supply dwindles.
What is troubling is that even though companies are dismayed with the ruling, they hardly provide conservation counter efforts that could prevent the classification of bees as endangered. It is only the consequences of their own actions they face.
Honeybee researcher Alison McAfee explains, “And while honey bee–centric businesses often support initiatives that benefit native bees, such as developing bee-friendly habitats, the financial contributions pale in comparison to what could be achieved if funds were applied to these initiatives directly.”
While honeybees pollinate a huge percentage of our crop yield, native bees are also extremely essential to our food supply as they are more effective pollinators. Unfortunately, commercially managed honeybees have beaten out all their competition, which is why four species of bumblebees must be protected in the first place to balance out companies’ minimal actions.
But, of course, aside from exploitative commercial bee management, the climate crisis is also a huge threat to our keystone pollinators. Extreme shifts in temperature, droughts and floods have disrupted the processes pollinators routinely carry out; these changes threaten the nutrition, development, reproduction and survival of bees. And because bumblebees pollinate approximately “one out of every three bites of food” we consume, their dying out will affect a majority of human sustenance.
“In almost all crops, native bees are the primary pollinator or they significantly supplement the activity of honey bees,” the United States Geological Survey (USGS) additionally addresses, tending to the fact that more pollen sticks to bumblebees.
And how much food are we really talking about here? Well, the diminishing population of bumblebees adversely affects the crop yield they assist honeybees in producing.
“More than 100 U.S.-grown crops rely on pollinators,” states the U.S. Department of Agriculture. “The added revenue to crop production from pollinators is valued at $18 billion.”
As keystone species, bees not only pollinate various flora for plant reproduction and biodiversity but they also create the seeds animals depend on for food. Animals consume the seeds, then excrete it over wide areas to further plant reproduction. These essential processes are threatened as agriculture and climate change are killing off native bee species.
“Most plants rely upon insects – often bees – for pollination, producing the fruits and seeds that feed songbirds and many small mammals,” states the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.
Bees’ impacts are far-reaching for any sector of the ecosystem it disappears from. It is clear not only a few pretty flowers are at stake.
Alas, the effects of commercial bee management used in agriculture and climate change combined have driven bumblebees, our crucial native pollinators, into a critically endangered state.
More productive than harassing one detail from a court ruling, remember that the real issue is that native bee species have been hit hard enough that some loophole must be found to qualify their protection under CESA. And while CESA exempts farmers from being penalized in the event they do accidentally harm native bee species, it does not hurt to keep those companies accountable for their actions. If we do not take the necessary conservation efforts, we deserve the disgrace of living in a world where human causes result in collapsed ecosystems.
Ironically, we are witnessing the butterfly effect that the declining population of bumblebees will eventually have on the world’s dwindling food supply and suffering ecosystem.