Sustainability and The Disappearing Bee
Sustainability, as defined by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, is “based on a simple principle: ‘Everything that we need for our survival and well-being depends, either directly or indirectly, on our natural environment’.” “To pursue sustainability is to create and maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.” The sustainability movement in the United States emerged shortly after WWII as social, environmental and economic consequences in the United States began to ensue. Gaining traction with the first Earth Day in 1970, the sustainability movement epitomized the intertwining consequences of “rapid population growth, economic growth and consumption of natural resources.” Following WWII America experienced rapid population growth. The population doubled from 1950 to 2010, maybe at the cause of the baby boomers, leading to greater consumption needs, and increased demand for products.  Due to these demands American farms began using “improved” production methods in order to keep up. Planting less cover crops, a natural fertilizer, to create more space for profitable goods also lead to the use of synthetic fertilizer. This serves as just one example of a production “advancement” in farming.
As I searched for data, it led to interesting conclusions about the effects of farming practices on pollinators, the honeybee in particular. Currently, one third of crop growth in the United States is dependent on bee pollination, this includes crops, such as alfalfa hay, used for farm animal food, almonds, blueberries, avocados, and lettuce. Since there has been a decline in honeybee colonies and the United States is so dependent on honeybee pollinating capabilities for crop growth, most honeybee hives today are commercially owned and managed. Analyzing the data led to interesting findings that provides insight on the sustainability movement in the context of honeybees. Through the visualizations I compare and contrast the relationships between the United States population and economic growth around the 1950’s with the industrialization of farming, defined by monopolization and monoculture tendencies.
About the data
USDA: The USDA of the United States Department of Agriculture, is the federal department that is responsible for “food, agricultural, natural resources, rural development, nutrition, and related issues based on public policy, the best available science, and effective management.”  In existence for over 150 years the USDA has been collecting data. The data has since been published and is shared with the shared with the public. Through the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service website, I was able to find a census of Agriculture for varying years including 2007 until as late as 1840. The data collection does vary across the years and can be seen on a state level or national level.
CDFA: The California Department of Food Agriculture is an online data base where I found statistics on specific crops grown in California.
NIFA: The National Institute of Food and Agriculture is an American mandated agency whose role is to fund programs that advance agricultural research. In partner with the NIFA and USDA I was able to find more recent data collected on the losses reported by beekeepers in the United States.
The Beginnings of the Sustainability Movement
After World War II there was a dramatic increase in the American population, the baby boomers. While there was an increase in population there was also an increase in the United States GDP from 1950. This data suggests that businesses and other product corporations were achieving higher levels of output based on higher levels of demand and providing for the amount of people in the United States.
This visualization clearly indicates a rapid growth of the United States population and the steady economic growth, which I represented as GDP in billions of dollars, since 1950. There is a strong positive correlation between GDP and population growth, suggesting that there are several factors that impacted the ability for America to provide for its people. Production was “improved” and “advanced” to handle this change, which explains the economic growth. As factories became more capable of handling large quantities farms also needed to figure out how to keep up with the population and the people’s needs. This lead to “more efficient” farming practices. I explored data to further investigate what farming changes took place following the 1950’s population growth.
After World War II there was a change in farming practices that lead to more “efficient” ways of farming. To show the the effects of those farming practices over the term of five years, from 2002 to 2007, I documented the number of farms in each state. The states with the most farms can easily be picked out. California, Texas, and a few Midwestern states are identifiably darker than several other states on the map, meaning they have more farms and are more agriculturally rich states.
Because the rage in time in the first visualization isn’t large enough to see a drastic change in color, I represented the data in another way to express that overall from 2002 to 2007 the United States has had a noticeable decrease in the number of total farms. This visualization represents the decline in the number of farms over a shorter period of time than preferred, so I have chosen to focus on a farm rich state, one of the top ten agricultural states, that will better represent this change over a longer period of time.
To express the decline in the number of farms in America over time I chose to look at Wisconsin, an important agricultural state. Here you can see the effects of farm practices by showing the decrease in the number of farms over the course of 38 years from 1959 to 1997. This visualization is a much more drastic difference in the number of farms from 131,215 farms in 1959 to 65,602 farms in 1997, a difference of 65,613 farms.
Considering there were less and less farms, it makes sense that each farm lucky enough to stick around became larger and larger in order to support more agricultural acres. As the number of Wisconsin farms were decreasing, the acreage per farm was increasing, which is representative of American farms as a whole. “Since 1900, the number of farms has fallen by 63 percent, while the average farm size has risen 67 percent.” As the number of farms declined, their average size increased. This change in farming signals a monopolization of agriculture. Only the larger farms were able to sustain themselves in such a demanding economy, but with such large farms came other problems.
Since farms were getting larger farmers needed to find a way to sustain such highly productive cropland. To do so farmers became dependent on pesticide use, another change in farming practices. Pesticide use has been increasing since it began being used to manage crops. This steady increase in pesticides use has been noticeable since 1960 as the visualization shows. To add another element to this visualization I thought it would be interesting to note the increase in the nominal cost of pesticides over time. As the use in pesticides increases so too does the cost of the pesticides. Keep in mind farms are continuing to increase in size and thus, farmers are required to purchase and use more pesticides to sustain their productive farmland.
Farms are increasingly gaining profit the larger they get. So, although there are less farms they are getting bigger and making more of a profit. Returning to the national data from 2002 to 2007 these two visualization represents which states were most profitable, it can be concluded that the top five most valuable agricultural markets in 2007 were California, Iowa, Texas, Kansas, and Illinois. California still remains the number one agricultural and crop producer in the United States today. As such, each of these states have farms that have become more specialized meaning, the number of commodities produced per farm has steadily decreased. “From an average of about five commodities per farm in 1900 to about one per farm in 2000.” This suggests more “efficient” production. To get a better understanding of crop monoculture I looked into the crops produced specifically in California to see how much land was used for one particular crop, the data suggests monoculture as investigated below.
From the visualization you can see that almonds are what make California the most agricultural profit, followed by milk and milk products. Almonds account for approximately 4,532 million dollars of California’s commodity market annually. “California is the leading US state in cash farm receipts with combined commodities representing nearly 13 percent of the US total.”
To visualize the increase in production and mechanization of farm land I included the data above. As the population increases, there is an increase in the production of almonds, mainly sourced in California. This increase in production may be related to the increase in almond trees per acre. As farms become larger more trees are planted, and there is an increase in the amount of sellable almonds. However, the visualization shows that even though there is an increase in the acres reserved for almond tress there is also an increase in the number of trees planted per acre, which means more land for more trees, but there are also more trees being planted per acre. One can conclude that the trees are crowded together on this farmland, but this practice is considered “efficient” because it helps farmers meet the demands of the population.
To further investigate these findings, I found articles on the importance of the migratory bee market in the production of almonds. Every year America’s commercially owned honeybees ride “inside more than one million boxes loaded onto thousands of tractor-trailers.” The ability to rent hives from commercial beekeepers has become common practice. In fact, about 1,600 of the nations beekeepers make approximately half of their profit from renting out their hives to farms across the country. Bees have an annual migration route, transported across the country on trucks just to pollinate apple orchards, cranberries and various other fruits and vegetables. Several beekeepers can actually keep their hives from the harsh winters of Minnesota and Wisconsin by transporting them to warmer states like Texas and Florida during colder months including November. Sounds like an interesting concept so, I worked backwards and found data on the sources of pollination fees, knowing now that pollination services play a large role in agriculture today. Almonds accounted for 44% of pollination fees in 2014, about 292 million dollars, followed by sunflowers accounting for only 16.8% of pollination fees in 2014. The almond crop depends on honeybee hive rentals for pollination. Honeybees now travel across America to properly pollinate several of our farms crops. Farmers can no longer depend on local honeybees. Since the production of crops is increasing so too is the need for bee’s pollination.
Reading more about the migratory bee and learning that one third of crop growth in the United States is dependent on bee pollination, this includes crops, such as alfalfa hay used for farm animal food, almonds, blueberries avocados, and lettuce, I continued my research. Most honeybee hives today are commercially owned. This means that most hives are managed and are the number of total colonies managed is on the rise. The visualization above represents the number of managed colonies lost. There is an increase in total colony loss, and this is projected to be a continuing trend. Bees have being dying over the past 50 years. This may be explained by what is reflected through the deaths of multiple and interacting causes of honeybees. There are several reasons that have caused honeybee death, but it seems to have started with a change in the United States farming practices around the conclusion of World War II. These farming practices include monoculture, the decreased planting of cover crops, and the increased use of pesticides. It was common practice to begin planting less of a variety of crops. Growing larger crop monocultures, one or two species of plants, became the more economical move. For example, the majority of almond cropping overwhelmingly takes place in the state of California. Farmers also wanted to use their land as efficiently as possible leaving no room for cover crops and more room for profitable crops. Cover crops however, serve as a main source of nutrients for bees. While monoculture and crop production were on the rise, the use of pesticides became a way to kill any crop pests, which prior to the creation and application of pesticides would feast on crop monoculture. Overtime there has been evidence that when bees come in contact with small concentrations of insecticides through seed coating they become disoriented which negatively impacts their memory and ability to return to the hive. “Another possivle vause signifi- h negatively impacts their memory and nd their way home. from, but as monocultures became increExposure to sub-lethal doses of neonictinoids [a particular insecticide] is known to reduce learning, foraging ability and homing ability in both honeybees and bumblebees.” 
My data shows that there is an increasingly smaller amount of farms, each of which is getting larger and more specialized, focusing on one or two crops, not a variety of crops, and using more pesticides. The data shows the end of World War II as particularly evident of an increase in population which correlated to the changes, mentioned above, that took place in farming practices. These highly productive and mechanized farms have lead to a dramatic growth of the output of individual farms. These farming practices have also been seen as the interrelated causes of bee deaths. My data shows that there has been a decrease in honeybee colonies, and the migratory bee market surly suggests that there is a decline in the existence of honeybees, but represents the importance of their pollinating capabilities. Thus, my data shows that if these farming practices remain there is going to continue to be an increase in the loss of bees. Sustainability is an important conversation to have. All of our organisms should be protected in order for America to support citizen’s survival. Our survival is dependent on the natural environment. If some post-World War II farming practices are not combated our agricultural system is headed to collapse. Bees are in harms way and bee loss will not allow for a sustainable society that can “maintain the conditions under which humans and nature can exist in productive harmony to support present and future generations.” One solution may be to find a natural alternative to pesticide use. Bees are required for one third of America’s agricultural production, they need variety to sustain a healthy life, planting cover crops and other weeds that bees benefit from is also a potential solution. Individuals, like you, can help out too by finding out what local plants are bee friendly and planting them. Plating a variety of flowers gives bees access to good nutrition. If bees have good nutrition, we will too!
The design of the data analysis
I designed my data in a way that attempted to tell a story while discovering new aspects. I chose different visuals depending on the data. Using percentages and whole numbers when I thought necessary, and overlapping certain related data sets to easily differentiate or see the similarities between insights.
At the start of the project I had a narrow focus. This limited the data I could find access to. There is not much data collection on the pesticide collection of bees, which is where I started. In particular, I was focusing on a type of insecticide, neonicotinoids. There was not much data collected on this specific insecticide in Wisconsin. Once I took a step back and looked at the other possible reasons of bee loss I was able to find much more data that related to the topic. Even then a lot of the data was on separate PDF files or the values did not match up making it difficult to convert as excel files and upload to Tableau for visualization purposes. Overall, once I had some data I began to tell a story through that data and there is so much more I could tell however, due to time constraints I tried to expand on the most documented potential causes of bee loss hoping it will still prove an important point about bee health and sustainability in America.