2015 Explanatory Reporting, Large Newsroom winner

Bees at the Brink


About the Project

With its lush farms and flowering prairies, Minnesota has long been a mecca for beekeepers. But when environmental reporter Josephine Marcotty began investigating the dramatic and mysterious decline of honeybees, she discovered something startling: America’s vast farmlands have become a hostile landscape for the honeybee.

Visiting orchards and traveling with beekeepers, Marcotty and photographer Renee Jones Schneider also came to see the larger landscape: A dramatic change in American agriculture that has elevated the role of managed pollination and forced beekeepers into a gypsy lifestyle. Along the way, they learned something else: American agriculture is killing the very pollinators it has come to depend on.

With sharp reporting, clear writing, stunning video and images, engaging infographics and clean design, “Bees at the Brink” documents this evolution in farming and explores the science of the honeybee and the lethal combination of factors contributing to its decline. It takes readers with beekeepers to the almond groves of California and into Bayer CropScience’s traveling roadshow on the merits of high-tech pesticides. The project reveals a quiet but fierce battle for consumer loyalty as environmentalists and chemical companies seek to influence federal regulation of powerful farm chemicals.

Marcotty and Jones Schneider put people at the heart of the storytelling: the beekeepers who struggle to keep their bees alive for one more season; farmers at the mercy of agribusiness corporations beyond their control; and the “MacArthur genius’’ who walks a careful scientific line as she seeks to unravel the mystery of her beloved insect.

The reporting duo worked closely with a team of editors, designers and developers — including David Hage, Jenni Pinkley, Jamie Hutt, David Braunger, Ray Grumney, Mark Boswell and Jeff Hargarten – to craft graphics, design that would showcase that work and provide an immersive, educational experience for users. Members of the Bee Team pushed each other to improve the storytelling experience to ensure that everything from the first words to the last video clips were accurate, illuminating and impactful.

“Bees at the Brink” had a lasting impact on consumers and regulators and helped inform a growing debate about the issue. After intense public pressure, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture last fall agreed to consider banning the most controversial class of insecticides – an unprecedented step. “Bee friendly” lawn signs popped up like dandelions across the state, and some of the biggest players in the food industry began paying attention: Minnesota-based General Mills, which relies on honey and honeybees for many of its products, is urging its suppliers to adopt new farm practices and is funding pollinator research at the University of Minnesota.

And the conversation is broadening: This spring the EPA said it would stop approving new uses for neonicotinoids until further study, and the Obama administration announced a plan to increase bee-friendly land, spend millions on research and consider the use of fewer pesticides.

The project has earned a number of honors, including the following: First place, Documentary, National Press Photographers Assoc.; Award of Excellence, Combination Print & Digital News, Society of News Design. Print News and Issue, Story Editing, Pictures of the Year International.