How Ordinary Beehives Could Reverse Our Plastic Waste Disaster

Could these buzzing little creatures be our planet's biggest heroes?

You’ve probably read about how honeybees are in danger. New research showing they may actually help mitigate our plastic problems shows why these little creatures are so important to our planet’s future. Plus, learn even more about why the world needs honeybees.

Plastic: a world-wide disaster

Plastic is everywhere. In your body wash. In your prepackaged foods. In our homes, stores, and restaurants. ConservingNow.com reports that in the United States, up to 380 billion plastic bags are used each year. The Environmental Protection Agency suggests that less than 10 percent of plastic ends up being recycled. Waste just keeps accumulating.

In 2019, National Geographic reported, “Every year, about 8 million tons of plastic waste escapes into the oceans from coastal nations.” The waste affects more than 700 ocean-dwelling species by getting stuck in turtles’ bellies and wrapping around seabirds’ necks and beaks, causing suffocation or starvation.

And the trouble doesn’t stop with animals. A developmental charity called Tearfund reports that between 400,000 and 1 million human deaths each year could be linked to badly managed waste. Reports like these are a warning to many nations and companies; indeed, these 22 companies have decided to get rid of plastic packaging for good.

How can bees help?

Bees support life in so many ways, from helping farmers grow your favorite fruit to pollinating feed crops for the cows that provide you with milk, cheese, and meat. EnvironmentAmerica.org says we wouldn’t have food without bees.

When it comes to plastic waste, bees could assist in two ways. First, scientists have noticed that some bees produce a substance that feels similar to plastic. Imagine a natural, non-toxic plastic alternative coating your fast-food packaging, toiletries, and furniture. It could change the future of our oceans and diminish pollution worldwide.

Second, some bees have begun using discarded plastics in their nests. This instinctual reusing and recycling could help clean up urban areas that are already dealing with heavy plastic pollution.

Bees and natural “plastic”

A few years ago, scientist Veronica Harwood-Stevenson went on the hunt for a natural alternative to plastic. She found the Australian Hylaeus nubilosus masked bee. These bees create nesting material that is “non-toxic, waterproof, flame-resistant, and able to withstand heat.”

Harwood-Stevenson founded a company called Humble Bee to reverse-engineer this natural plastic. The company works with biomimicry researchers to figure out how to recreate the material in a cost-effective way. Read about 15 brilliant products made from recycled ocean plastic.

At her TEDx talk in November 2019, Harwood-Stevenson said, “We hope that one day soon our polymer will be used to safely coat the fabrics of your clothes and the furniture that you lounge on.” She added, “Humble Bee is just one company trying to replace one type of plastic. We need hundreds more companies who are willing to read nature’s library and unlock the secrets of her incredible inventions to create new circular and safe materials.”

Bees: Mother Nature’s recycling bin?

Last year, Smithsonian Magazine buzzed with news that bees were using plastics as nesting materials. This could be good or bad—research is ongoing. On the one hand, this discovery means bees are adapting to a changing world. They are cleverly picking up waste and recycling it. But it could also mean that bees, whose populations are already shrinking, are putting themselves in harm’s way. “Microplastics—tiny fragments that break off from larger pieces—are known to threaten a wide array of marine animals, even those that don’t ingest the plastics directly,” the article reported.

How to support bees

If you’ve ever swatted a bee while gardening or found a dead bee floating in sugar water, you know that bees are small, fragile creatures. Don’t let the fear of a bee sting keep you from saving some of our planet’s tiniest heroes. Here are some ways to support bees and our environment as a whole:

Don’t stop there—if you’re looking for ways to be more sustainable and eco-friendly this year, try these tiny everyday changes that could save the Earth.

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Leandra Beabout
Leandra Beabout is a freelance journalist and branded content writer with a BA in English education from Indiana University. She writes about travel, health, and literature for Reader's Digest, Lonely Planet, CNN, and Literary Hub, among other publications. She is also a regular contributor to Greatist.com. Leandra is based in Indiana. Follow her on Instagram @LeandraBeabout and LinkedIn Leandrabeabout