Without Bees, We Are in Trouble

Aug 21, 2019 by

Can an alliance of Germany’s political parties save them?


Dr. Lazerson is an emeritus professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Credit Simone Noronha

ROTTACH-EGERN, Germany — I stand 4,000 feet above sea level, looking at a mountain meadow filled with late summer wildflowers, bees, wet grass. Clouds hang low over the surrounding mountain peaks. I breathe in the cool wind that signals fall is coming. In more than three decades of hiking in the European Alps, such moments have become familiar sources of joy.

Increasingly, though, these moments bring sadness. The mountain meadows and the wildflowers are disappearing — and the bees are dying, victims of changing weather conditions. Too many hikers and bikers, diseases and parasites, ski lifts and ski runs, pesticides and chalets.

It is impossible to know exactly how fast bees are dying, but Greenpeace U.S.A. estimates that among crops that require bee pollination, the number of bee colonies per hectare has declined by 90 percent since 1962. A sophisticated study of bumble bees across America published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2011 found “quantified dramatic range-wide population declines.”

People do not automatically fall in love with bees. Their stings hurt and they can be dangerous. But bees are the lifeblood for our existence. Their pollination allows our plants and food crops to reproduce. Without them we are in trouble.

All is not yet lost. An extraordinary movement — “Rettet die Bienen” (in English, “Save the Bees”) — has swept through the German state of Bavaria, where I live. I was not even aware of it until it was well underway. Earlier this year there were placards everywhere urging people to sign a petition calling for a referendum in support of environmental protection. The petition required signatures from about one million people: the equivalent of 10 percent of eligible voters in order to be submitted to the Bavarian legislature. Between Jan. 31 and Feb. 13 this year, it got 1.8 million, stunningly overachieving.

The coalition was built through an alliance of the Green, Social Democratic, and Ecological Democratic parties, nature conservation groups, environmental foundations, research organizations, organic food companies and distributors, and bee producers. Families and young people joined in. And it captured our emotions with its simple slogan.

The movement has been so powerful that Bavaria’s longtime governing party, the Christian Social Union, which had not been at the forefront of climate change conversations and tended to resist serious environmental protection measures, responded by voting into law what the petition called for. The law commits the government to preserve the environment, support organic farming, increase the number of natural meadows, prevent further losses of biodiversity, protect clean water and limit pesticide use. Along with saving the bees, insects, amphibians, reptiles, birds and wild herbsare to be protected. If put into practice, it will be extraordinary.

Environmental concerns across Germany have given the Green Party a level of prominence unimaginable in the United States. And the country’s political system — where two or more parties almost always form coalitions to govern — could favor the Greens, who are surging in opinion polls. They might become the most popular political party in the country.

In the 1960s, when I was studying to become a historian, it became fashionable to talk about the “tragedy of the commons.” What was a commons anyway and, if it existed, why would its disappearance be tragic? This led me to develop my own definition: The commons was quite simply a central place in European villages that drew townspeople together, where animals grazed and communal events occurred. This may have been a historical fantasy, but over the years it sustained me in believing that there were public goods — clean air and water, transportation, protection against crime, old age security, education and health care — that should be supported in the interest of all.


Today, that belief in a common good seems harder to maintain and yet more imperative than ever. The notion that we share a commons frequently gives way to a belief, often supported by government policies, that the private — what I own — is always better than what we share with others. Efforts like the Save the Bees movement have shown promise in bringing people together in pursuit of common goals.

The mountain meadows are my commons, although I know they do not belong to me. I share them with others who treasure them. Their altitude gives them some protection, but they are still under threat. The search for ever more monetary returns from the land could overwhelm them.

Whether these meadows — in which insects and wildflowers, bees and butterflies, buttercups and sunflowers symbiotically flourish — will continue to exist is an open question. That in itself is a tragedy.

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Marvin Lazerson is an emeritus professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and a former professor at Central European University.

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