Kathleen M. Pike, PhD


June is National Pollinators Month. Butterflies, beetles, hummingbirds, bats, and most importantly, bees are among the 200,000 pollinators who are responsible for transferring pollen from one plant to another. In doing so, they provide an essential service to plants, and ultimately to us all, in the production of flowers, nuts, fruits, and vegetables.

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My favorite pollinator is the apis mellifera, or western honeybee. Now in my fifth year as a beekeeper, I continue to marvel at what these black and yellow striped beauties have to teach us about mental health when we open the hive and observe.

1. What’s the buzz? Honeybees don’t howl or hoot. Bees don’t screech or bark. They quietly buzz about, focused on carrying out their responsibilities for the greater good. Mature colonies have between 40,000 – 60,000 honeybees nestled in less than 1 cubic meter. All for one, and one for all. Honeybee colonies are super-organisms. Individual bees cannot survive on their own. The survival of the collective depends on eusocial behavior that includes sharing responsibility for the overall health of the colony – from nursing newborns to foraging for food and cleaning the hive. Because the bees honor their interdependence, the hive fills with honey.

2. Bees and blossoms. Not only do bees depend on each other for survival, they depend on all those blooming flowers that grace the fields, drip on garden trellises, and decorate the trees for sustenance. And the plants depend on the bees to survive and reproduce. Somewhere between 75% and 95% of all flowering plants – over 180,000 different plant species and more than 1200 crops – need pollinators. In exchange for their services, honeybees take pollen and nectar back to their hives where pollen is their main source of protein and nectar is transformed into honey. Not only does this mutual dependence of plants and bees usher forth floral beauty and liquid gold, the majority of food that humans consume depends on pollination. One out of every three bites of food you eat is thanks to pollinators. Interdependence produces abundance.

3. Co-evolution and diversity. Not only do the bees and the plants depend on each other, in many cases they evolve in response to each other. This codependence and coevolution contributes to the extraordinary biodiversity on earth. Flowering plants that depend on pollinators evolve colors, shapes, scents, and even food supplies to make themselves more attractive. Pollinators evolve in multiple ways as well, including size, wingspan, and color. In the case of the honeybee, its proboscis adapts and finely adjusts to the floral morphology and nectar production of the regional flowers. Interdependence propels growth and diversity.

4. Want to dance? Honeybees are the only known bee genus to have evolved a sophisticated communication system. Honeybees engage in at least three types of dance – the tremble or shake, the round, and most famously, the waggle dance to communicate with other members of their colony about the location of resources. Successful foragers perform waggle dances to communicate where others can find high quality food. When the hive is swarming, scouts perform a waggle dance indicating where to find a suitable new home. The waggle dance rules are such that it is performed only by those who have new knowledge that is valuable to the collective, and it is performed just once. Honeybees depend on expertise, communicate it clearly, and use it for the benefit of the collective.

5. Pesticides are killing the bees and the rest of us, too. Many of us run and hide when we see that fuzzy yellow and black striped critter flying about. But a honeybee does not sting except as a last attempt to defend itself or the hive. Once it stings, it dies. The greater risk to us are the pesticides we are spraying all over Mother Earth. The honeybees are our canaries in the coal mine. Almost half of the honeybee colonies in the United States died between April 2020 to April 2021. Although multiple factors contribute to colony collapse, a major one is the gargantuan overuse of pesticides. The USA lags behind other agricultural countries in banning harmful pesticides and is among the worst offenders where about 1 billion pounds of conventional pesticides are used each year to control weeds, insects, and other pests. Although pesticide use has been associated with increased food production and reduction of insect-borne disease, the ever-expanding use of pesticides – from industrial agriculture to suburban yards – has diminishing returns with profound adverse effects on the environment and human health. When we lose track of all the ways that life on earth is interdependent, we create toxic environments that kill.

Honeybees are our most important pollinators. Honeybees depend on each other for survival. They depend on flowering plants for sustenance, and in return, nearly 200,000 flowering plants depend on them and other pollinators for survival. This interdependence propels co-evolution, growth, and diversity. It is what makes our world beautiful. Depending on experts with knowledge for accurate, valuable information yields abundance and safety. Losing track of our interdependence kills. This is a story of pollinators. It is also the story of mental health.

Picture of Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD

Kathleen M. Pike, PhD is Professor of Psychology and Director of the Global Mental Health WHO Collaborating Centre at Columbia University.

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