When we work to solve big social problems, we need to take a step back and look at the social aspects as well as the scientific—what some might call the "soft" as well as the "hard" problems.
By Richard J. Crespin, CEO Crespin Enterprises & BCLC Senior Fellow
No one owns honey bee pollination. As with almost anything in a highly specialized society, a commercial beekeeper owns her bees but not the means of making the inputs or outputs of bee pollination. She doesn't own the land or the crops and flowers that her bees depend on for forage, that is to say, for food. She relies on farmers and other surrounding landowners to feed her bees. Nor does she own the distributors and stores that bring the crops and flowers her bees pollinate to market. This specialization has wonderfully increased the production and distribution of food.
It's a problem, though, when a tough problem arises where no one party stands to lose or gain in the short term, but where we all stand to lose or gain in the long. These are problems "in the commons." Just such a problem threatens honey bee health.
Colony Collapse: Who’s Problem Is It?
The recent Honey Bee Health Summit held at Monsanto’s Chesterfield Village Research Center in St. Louis and co-hosted by Project Apis mP identified a set of potential problems causing declining honey bee populations. These included poor nutrition due to lack of a multivariate diet, the varroa destructor mite and its accompanying viruses, and pesticides which exacerbate the other two problems.
The beekeeper doesn't really "own" any of these problems. She can’t control what is planted on the land where her bees look for food. The varroa mite, an invasive parasite that burst on the scene in the early 2000s that attaches itself to bees and weakens their immune systems making them susceptible to a battery of viruses, isn't owned by the beekeeper. She owns the decision about whether or not to use miticides to treat her bees, but that's it.
Bees come into contact with pesticides when they forage near agriculture, mainly when they pollinate treated crops, but the beekeeper doesn't have the decision of whether or not to treat crops with pesticides, nor does she completely control where her bees range.
"Bottom line: the vast majority of managed colonies in the U.S. contain a population of bees that requires intensive husbandry, chemical control of parasites, and is dependent upon supplemental feeding, similar to other livestock," wrote Randy Oliver in a recent entry on his Scientific Beekeeping blog.
What Does This Mean for Improving Honey Bee Health?
It means even if you had the perfect scientific solution, you would still need a complex social solution.
Let's take forage. Bees, like humans, need a multivariate diet. "What is important to bees, other pollinators and beneficial insects are the weeds, native plants and brush between the rows [of crops], on the field margins and ditch banks and in hedgerows and woods," writes Oliver. "It is these plants that provide the steady mix of diverse nectar and pollen upon which colony health is dependent. Such bee-friendly flora used to be a common feature in agricultural lands. But today’s farms often appear 'sterile'—all the pasture and biologically diverse 'natural' areas have been cleared and herbicided right down to bare soil."
Many activists blame large agribusinesses for creating these bee food "agri-desserts" through the proliferation of monocultures; when in fact, the spread of monocultures are due to, "the application of the recommendations of [USDA] agricultural extension agents and the economic reality of farming." These recommendations and their resulting intense and highly specialized farming practices arose in response to a growing population worldwide with an expanding demand for more and more food produced on less and less land by fewer and fewer people.
Scaling Long-term Investments
Solving the forage problem lies outside the control of the beekeeper. If the answer is to plant more varied crops, weeds and wildflowers, the farmer would need to do it on his land, thereby giving up production capacity, i.e., revenue. Planting more varied crops raises his cost to plant, manage and harvest. Solving the bee nutrition problem requires the active cooperation of at least three parties: the USDA to change its recommendations on farming practices, the farmer to plant forage and the beekeeper to place her bees in the right fields.
And this demonstrates the problem of problems in the commons. No one party stands to gain or lose in the near term but we all stand to gain or lose in the long term. In fact, the short-term incentives may actively work against long-term solutions. The USDA, the farmer and even the beekeeper have limited to no short-term interest in solving the problem. In fact, the farmer's immediate interest is to maximize production on his land, so giving up land to plant forage runs directly counter to his interests. Solving this problem will require developing solutions that benefit farmers and beekeepers while addressing the need of an ever hungrier planet.
When we work to solve big social problems, we need to take a step back and look at the social aspects as well as the scientific—what some might call the "soft" as well as the "hard" problems. Even if we come up with great "hard" solutions, if the social structures aren't in place to implement them, they will persist.
About the Author:
Richard is the CEO of Crespin Enterprises, a boutique consulting firm working to bring companies, NGOs, and governments together to create commercial innovations that solve problems in the commons. He is also a Senior Fellow of the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation. He lives with his wife in Falls Church, VA where they practice extreme parenting with their three young children.