The link between honey bee colony collapse, asset bubbles and income inequality.
In this episode you’ll learn:
- Why honey bee colonies are collapsing.
- What are positive feedback loops.
- How positive feedback loops contribute to honey bee collapse, asset bubbles and income inequality.
- What is preferential attachment.
- How to avoid being caught up in a positive feedback loop.
The Blight of the Honey Bees David Wallace-Wells – New York Magazine
Rapid behavioral maturation accelerates failure of stressed honeybee colonies by Clint J. Perry, Erik Sovak, Mary R. Meyercough, and Andrew Barren
Bee declines driven by combined stress of parasites, pesticides and lack of flowers by Dave Goulson, Elizabeth Nichols, Cristina Botias, Ellen Rotheray – Science
Information, Ants and Inequality by Diego Espinosa
Special Report: The War on Big Food – Fortune Magazine
Bubbles and the Missing Bees
In 2007, just before the Great Recession and the near collapse of the financial system there was a different type of collapse that had farmers and food suppliers worried and perplexed.
Honey bee colonies were collapsing. Hives abandoned. The bees missing.
The honey bees were not dead on the ground but they had completely vanished.
It was a mystery as deep as the “Mary Celeste”, the American merchant ship that landed in the Azores Islands in 1872, still sea worthy but with the entire crew missing.
That mystery was never solved.
Bee Colony Collapse
In 2007, I remember hearing of this massive bee collapse and the ominous warnings that one out of every three bites of food we eat is dependent on honey bees. I thought of massive crop failures and starvation.
Then the financial crisis hit, and I forgot all about the bees until last week when my neighbor mentioned the three new beehives he has in his backyard.
Whatever happened to the missing honey bees? I wondered.
I saw a tweet about how bees were literally worrying themselves to death. The tweet linked to an insightful article in New York magazine by David Wallace-Wells titled the Blight of the Honey Bee.
Apparently, honey bees are still suffering massive die offs.
According to the Bee Informed Partnership and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, beekeepers lost 42% of their colonies in the past year. The prior year they lost 34% of their colonies and the year before that 46%.
Yet, despite these massive losses there are still bounteous displays of nuts, fruits and vegetables at the grocery store. We have not starved.
Those percentage losses sound horrendous and anyone that loses money at that rate will quickly go broke, unless they can generate money just as fast.
It turns out queen bees are quite prolific at producing more bees. A single queen can generate an entire colony in one season. So beekeepers grow new hives as fast as the old ones collapse.
Consequently, while the annual honey bee colony collapse is an expensive and inconvenient problem as of yet it has not disrupted the food supply.
Still, why are the bees dying?
Scientists have been working on that.
First, it’s important to note wild bees are not suffering these types of collapses. Only managed hives. And by managed hives I mean hives that are loaded on trucks and carted from field-to-field, county-to-county and state-to-state to pollinate our produce.
Those that travel for a living know it is not an easy life. It can be stressful. All that jostling around and exposure to myriad germs, parasites and pathogens and in the case of migrant worker bees chronic exposure to pesticides.
Coupled with the fact these transient pollinators unnaturally binge on one food source for weeks at a time—say almond blossoms and nectar—before being bused to another mono-food source to pollinate.
Scientists believe it is the chronic exposure to multiple stressors (parasites, pathogens, pesticides and a lack of diet diversity) and the interaction of these stressors that lead to massive bee losses.
But why do the bees disappear, abandoning their hives?
Apparently, bees react to these stressors by “foraging precociously” according to a recent study by Clint J. Perry, Erik Sovak, Mary R. Meyercough, and Andrew Barren.
Using radio tracked bees, the authors found stressors cause bees to forage too early in life.
Bees that are not ready to leave the hive but do so anyway have a higher risk of death in their first flight and make far fewer foraging trips.
This high death toll of premature foragers requires more foragers to be sent out to find food, leading to what is known as a positive feedback loop, as younger and younger members of the hive are sent foraging and fewer and fewer return until the hive is empty except for the queen and the remaining brood.
Asset Bubbles and Positive Feedback Loops
A positive feedback loop is a self-reinforcing pattern that leads a system further and further from its equilibrium state to where it can potentially collapse.
Like honey bee hives, the economy and financial system can suffer from positive feedback loops.
One example is asset bubbles. In an equilibrium state, financial markets have a wide diversity of opinion and views as buyers and sellers independently make assessments of what a security is worth.
At times, though, more and more investors abandon their own independent judgment and follow the “smart money” believing others have a better sense of where markets are heading. This pushes up asset prices, which attracts new entrants into the market who don’t want to miss out on the rapid price appreciation.
This mimicking behavior causes a positive feedback loop that leads to an asset bubble that eventually bursts as investors rush to exit their positions at the same time.
Often these bubbles are facilitated by industry players and other institutions that profit from the naivety of new market entrants.
The housing bubble is the most recent example of this as rising home prices attracted house flippers and other speculators who were facilitated by an entire financial infrastructure that developed around processing and selling off mortgage loans based on unverified income, minimal documentation, and dubious appraisals.
Positive feedback loops and their catastrophic consequences can be avoided by fostering diversity and independence so that stressors and manias are localized and can’t quickly spread to the entire population.
Perhaps that means relying less on our highly concentrated industrial food supply and more on local food sources. It also means acting independently in our own financial decisions and not just following the crowd.