These giant farms should also stop hosing their plants with pesticides, said Scott Hoffman Black, executive director of The Xerces Society,* an invertebrate conservation group. Black told me in many cases big farms douse their seeds, soil, plants, in pesticides even if there’s no direct threat from a pest. He calls it the prophylactic, or “silver bullet,” approach. The strategy dates back to the development of neonicotinoids in the 1990s, which were pushed by the pesticide industry as an all-encompassing pest killer safe for mammals and birds. Neonicotinoids are indeed safer for mammals and birds, but not necessarily insects. These pesticides are water soluble, are absorbed into the plants, into the plant’s pollen, and have been linked to bee and bumblebee deaths, reduced queen fertility, and generally decreased insect health. Europe and Canada have already limited their use, but regulation has not come to the U.S., and Black blames this on the lobbying power of the pesticide industry.
“Many of our farmers get it,” Black said of his organization's push to switch onto a more targeted pesticide approach. “They understand that if we ruin the environment around the farm they may not get the benefits they need.”
Some corporate farms are signing on with Xerces’ plan, like General Mills, which is spending millions to change the way it uses pesticides. But pollinator decline is not just a rural, or corporate problem. Per-acre, more pesticides are found in the suburbs. Homeowners generally don’t know what they’re doing when they buy pesticides from a big-box store. They end up overspraying.
As for Nosema bombi, one plan all the entomologists I spoke to agreed with is that the federal government must regulate bee movement. Not among the bees themselves, but bee breeders. Right now the U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees the international importation of bees, and something similar needs to be done among states. The need to feed a rising population has created agricultural production in sizes beyond the pollination capability of wild bees, so as American farmers rent-out bee colonies to do their pollinating, more attention must be paid to what bees are going where. Ideally, this would restrict commercial bee movement to areas where the species is indigenous. No more Eastern bumblebees grown in European factories and shipped over ocean to U.S. states from Pennsylvania to California.
It’s going to be difficult, as T'ai Roulston, a professor in the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia, told me, because “we don’t have any history at managing disease in wild insects.”
It may be that the plague of Nosema bombi has spread beyond the point of human intervention. If that’s the case, there’s only a couple things scientists can hope for: One, that the rusty-patched bumblebee colonies alive now have developed a genetic resistance to Nosema bombi, which is why they’re still alive. And two, that entomologists can rear captive colonies of parasite resistant rusty-patched bumblebees. If that happens, then like conservationists did with the California condor, entomologists could return healthy bumblebee colonies to their former habitats. Some scientists believe this crosses a line. It represents too much meddling. But even if it could be done, Roulston told me, he doubts anyone is capable. “There aren’t many people who could do it,” he said. Then a moment later he remembered one person.
James Strange, Roulston said, the entomologist in northern Utah, “If anybody is trying it, it’s probably him.”
So I asked Strange, is he up for it?
“I’m up for trying anything,” he said, with a nervous laugh.
*This article originally misstated the name of the Xerces Society. We regret the error.