Andreas Späth

Bee Killers

2010-04-28 07:33

Imagine a world without honeybees. “Just one less pesky stinging insect to worry about,” you might say. “Oh, and no more honey. Bit of a bummer, but not exactly a train smash for civilisation.” As it turns out, losing the world’s honeybee population would be a much bigger disaster than most of us think and what’s worse, it’s not even a particularly unlikely scenario.

In addition to natural, seasonal die-offs, commercial beekeepers have been dealing with gradually decreasing populations in their apiaries for decades, but in recent years, a mysterious condition has devastated millions of hives around the globe, threatening their very livelihood and by extension a significant portion of agricultural production. It’s called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and involves the vast majority of adult worker bees in a hive simply and inexplicably abandoning their home, leaving behind a healthy queen, their immature brood and often large stores of pollen and honey. It’s as though they head out for work one morning, decide they’ve had enough of it all and never come back. En masse! Presumably they die a lonely death out in the open, as CCD-affected hives are always eerily empty, even of dead bees.

In October of 2006 some beekeepers in the US started reporting losses of between 30 and 90% of their hives and soon similar accounts were heard from Europe and Canada, to Brazil and India. Surveys have shown that between 2006 and 2009, around a third of the stock of American bee colonies was lost annually. Initial reports from last winter suggest that the trend continues. Honeybees are still in trouble - billions have disappeared, above and beyond natural attrition, in less than half a decade.

Although CCD has yet to create a crisis in food production, it could do so in future if no solution is found. While many other insects are involved in pollinating flowering plants, the hardworking honeybee is the only species to do so on demand and on a commercial scale. About a third of all US crop species - over 130 kinds, from apples, peaches, almonds and strawberries to soybeans and cherries - are dependent on pollination by honeybees. In 2000, the total value of fruit, nut, seed and vegetable production dependant on the roving honeybee industry was estimated at more than $14 billion in the USA alone.

While scientists have dismissed sensationalist newspaper reports suggesting that cellphones are to blame for CCD, they have yet to isolate any single culprit:

- Some researchers think that a combination of bee mites, bacteria, viruses and fungi, all of which are spread very quickly around our globalised world, weaken the immune system of bees and lead to the catastrophic die-offs associated with CCD.

- A German study showed that bees fed on pollen from genetically-modified, insect-resistant crops were significantly more vulnerable to population collapse when infested by parasites than bees fed on normal crops. The practice of feeding corn syrup derived from genetically-modified maize to bees during winter months is likely to exacerbate this situation.

- The single-crop-diet provided by modern monoculture farms makes bees vulnerable. A 2010 study suggests that bees feeding on a wide variety of plants have a healthier immune system than those eating only pollen from a single plant species.

- Another 2010 study implicates a potentially lethal cocktail of pesticides, particularly insecticides, residues of which have been found in pollen, wax, bee and hive samples from CCD-affected colonies.

The most likely scenario is that honeybees are falling prey to what some scientists are calling an “industrial disease”: a combination of causes gathered into a perfect storm largely caused or at least significantly affected by human practices in agriculture and beekeeping.

Whatever the actual causes, CCD should give us pause to think about how complex seemingly simple natural systems actually are. Even ones that have been largely domesticated for a long time such as the symbiotic relationship between the honeybee and some of our most important food crops. What’s more, it should make us realise how fragile some of these life-sustaining natural systems are and how careful we need to be to preserve them. Mull on that as you munch on your honey toast tomorrow morning!

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