Bees’ play a starring role in the natural order of our world and their importance as pollinators, both for agriculture and for wild plants, can’t be underestimated. Bees are known as a “keystone species,” ensuring the continued reproduction and survival not only of plants but of other organisms that depend on those plants for survival. Once a keystone species disappears, other species begin to disappear too—thus Albert Einstein’s apocalyptic and, these days, oft-quoted view: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”
Since 2006ish, our bees have been dying—in record numbers. The recent disappearance of catastrophic numbers of bees from their colonies, in the U.S. especially but also in every part of the world has been dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The most striking symptom of CCD is that the bees appear to die away from the hive. One day they fly away and never return. Those few that are left behind, say scientists, are ill. Virtually every known bee virus can be found in their bodies; some are carrying five or six viruses, as well as several fungal infections, at the same time.
The other worrying factor is the way other bees and insects avoid these abandoned nests. In nature, nothing is wasted and an abandoned hive would normally be taken over by other creatures opportunistically looking for food and shelter. But hives suffering from CCD remain empty, suggesting that there may be something toxic in the colony itself.
If we want to understand why bees are dying off, then a first step would be to examine the myriad ways we have exploited them and corrupted their natural behavior for our own convenience. Surprising, right?
As the number of crops we grow increases, the need for pollinators grows too, and these days beekeepers can make more money renting out bees to pollinate food crops than they have ever been able to make selling homemade honey.
- Having been co-opted into industrial farming, commercial bees have become just another type of farm machinery. But the machinery is breaking down. Ironically, the giant farms that destroy natural habitats and use large quantities of pesticides are the ones that need bees the most, and are at the same time important contributors to their decline.
Migratory pollination is a multibillion-dollar industry. But transporting bees huge distances in giant 18-wheel juggernauts with the hives stacked on top of each other also stresses the insects out. Higher levels of stress in turn make them more vulnerable to disease. Studies show CCD is most prevalent in transported bees, with losses of up to 90 percent within the colonies.
By transporting bees across great distances, beekeepers are also transporting mites and any other parasites, viruses, bacteria and fungi to places they might not otherwise have spread.
Industrial-sized colonies may have greater market value, but they bring the same problems to bees that industrial poultry farmers have visited on their chickens and turkeys: the easy spread of disease.
A survey of Ohio beekeepers found the average loss of live colonies in the previous six months was 72 percent. A close look at the figures, however, revealed that beekeepers with fewer than 100 colonies had an average 55 percent loss, but the loss rose to 75 percent for those with 500 or more colonies.
The boxy structure of modern commercial hives—which makes it easier to squeeze several colonies into a small space—and the configuration of bee yards have largely been designed for the convenience of human beekeepers and not necessarily with the health and natural biology of the bees in mind.
The natural diet of a bee is pollen and honey—a mixture rich in enzymes, antioxidants and other health-supporting nutrients. But to beef their bees up for the heavy work of pollination, commercial beekeepers feed them on the bee equivalent of protein bars and Lucozade—a mixture of artificial supplements, protein and glucose/fructose syrup. These sticky mixtures are freighted around the country in tankers to wherever the colonies happen to be. This is expensive and occasionally it proves cheaper to kill off whole colonies rather than feed them over the winter.
The artificial diets are in part a response to the decline of the bees’ natural foraging areas. Fewer plants mean less natural food for the bees. But taking any living creature off its natural diet and force-feeding it junk food will inevitably result in poor immunity. Bees in particular have a much less adaptive immune system than we do, so if a bee becomes infected with a virus, its body can’t respond by making specific antibodies.
In a normal colony, the queen can live and produce eggs for several years. In commercial beekeeping, breeding better queens is a profitable business and queens are regularly killed and replaced—as often as every six months. The queen may be subjected to the stress of having her wings clipped to identify her and also to limit “swarming”—when bees leave one colony with a new queen and form another elsewhere (the natural way for bees to ensure their survival and genetic diversity).
To ensure that colonies express the genetic qualities that beekeepers value, however, some virgin queens are artificially inseminated with sperm from crushed males. This practice, while not universal, is gaining in popularity as it becomes more difficult for honeybees to survive naturally.
2. Bee populations have been affected by the varroa mite that attacks the intestines. Varroa, in particular, depresses the bees’ immune response, making them more prone to infection. Varroa also makes the bees more vulnerable to a crippling viral disease that produces wing deformity.
In a healthy colony, varroa could to some degree be seen as useful, helping to cull the weaker members. But in already-weakened artificial colonies we treat the infestation with insecticides such as coumaphos, a dangerous organophosphate to which mites rapidly develop resistance. This resistance can be passed on from generation to generation, and some evidence suggests resistant mites actually thrive with repeated exposure.
3. Pesticides used on food crops and other crops can affect bees, even at sub-lethal doses. Exposure can produce a kind of pesticide intoxication that makes the bees appear “drunk” and disrupts navigation, feeding behavior, memory, learning and egg-laying.
Fipronil impairs the olfactory memory process which is obviously important because honeybees use it to find pollen and nectar. Spinosad can make bumblebees slower foragers even at low doses. The insecticide imidacloprid can cause bees to forget where their hives are located. The French government banned imidacloprid in 1999 due to its toxicity to bees, the effects of which French beekeepers labeled “mad bee disease.”
Neonicotinoid pesticides are one of the main causes of the loss in bees. Neonicotinoid are the most used insecticide worldwide and their purpose is specifically to kill insects and is even toxic to mammals. Four European countries have begun banning these poisons, and some bee populations are recovering. Neonicotinoids behave like carcinogens, and easily contaminate ground and surface water. There could be dire long-term consequences of environmental pollution with these insecticides, and my fears were confirmed by extensive research. Another toxin that has been linked to the death of bees is Bacill Thuringiensis prevents proper memory formation, and causes confusion. One of the symptoms of Colony Collapse Disorder is bees’ decreased navigational ability.
Bumblebees exposed to neonicotinoids in a study produced 85% fewer queens per colony and gained 8% to 12% less weight, on average. “If that went on for years, the consequences could be pretty dramatic,” said David Goulson of the University of Stirling in Scotland, who led the study. (David Goulson, University of Stirling / July 31, 2004)
Neonicotinoids emerged in the mid-1990s as a relatively less-toxic alternative to human-damaging pesticides. They soon became wildly popular, and were the fastest-growing class of pesticides in modern history. Their effects on non-pest insects, however, were unknown.
Leaked internal reports by the Environmental Protection Agency showed that industry-run studies used to demonstrate some neonicotinoids’ environmental safety were shoddy and unreliable. Other researchers found signs that neonicotinoids, while they didn’t kill bees outright, affected their ability to learn and navigate.
4. There are some researchers who claim that the radiation from mobile phones is affecting the honey bees. The theory is that the signals mess with the bees’ navigation systems so that they never make it back to their hives. There are separate studies that have shown that when a cell phone is placed near a hive, most bees will not return to it.
5. The two most obvious explanations of change in the world: Global Warming and an increase in Genetically Modified Foods. Genetically Modified Foods could be producing pollen with terrible nutritional value that the honey bees just cannot survive on. Genetically modified (GM) plants account for about 40 percent of U.S. cornfields. A small study done at the University of Jena in Germany found that pollen from GM corn made the bees more vulnerable to death from the varroa mite. The bacterial toxin in the corn appeared to alter the surface of the bees’ intestines, weakening it enough to allow the parasites to gain entry. Or Global Warming might be promoting fungus and mites that are toxic to the honey bees.
Bees are sensitive, social creatures that have achieved a high degree of harmony and productivity in their colonies. Their social structure is both dynamic and ordered. They are intelligent, and become more so with age. They learn and remember; they can use visual orientation to estimate the distance from a nectar source while in flight. They construct colonies that are warm in the winter and cool in the summer. They also suffer from occupational diseases, just like we do.
The single coherent thread that connects all the various theories of CCD is a massive failure of these creatures’ immune systems. It is entirely possible that CCD is the inevitable result of an overwhelming, ongoing assault on their immune systems.
Whichever of these is causing the drop, if any, it is important to notice the human-shaped trend running through all of these options. Maybe we are incapable of stopping it right now, but the least we can do is call attention to these hard working creatures that we are killing before they’re gone completely
Humans have had a symbolic relationship with bees since the insects were domesticated 7,000 years ago, but it is clearly not a relationship of equals. We have long exploited bees for our own ends, even when that wasn’t necessary.
Honeybees provide $15 billion worth of value to U.S. farmers, pollinating crops that range from apples to avocados to almonds. Despite the Department of Agriculture’s allotment of $20 million a year for the next five years to study CCD, it’s still a mystery — and the bees keep dying.
6. In the guts of CCD-afflicted bees, the microarray analysis showed unusual fragments of ribosomal RNA. Ribosomes are essentially the protein factories inside cells — they’re vital to the health of the cell itself and the larger organism. Scientist Berenbaum believe that the presence of those genetic fragments inside the CCD-afflicted bees indicates that they may be under attack by a number of insect viruses — including deformed wing virus and Israeli acute paralysis virus — that damage the ribosome.
Berenbaum is quick to point out that the microarray analysis is only correlative, meaning that while it can show evidence that certain viruses are present in CCD-afflicted bees, it doesn’t reveal exactly what role the viruses play, nor how best to battle them. One approach might be to control infestations by varroa mites, which carry multiple viruses into the hives they attack. The good news is that the disorder may be on the wane, with the Apiary Inspectors of America reporting that deaths from CCD are below 30% for the first time since the crisis began.
At last count, we have lost over one million hives of our most powerful pollinators over the past twenty years, and the number is still dropping daily. Over 100 species are already extinct. Okay, the bees are disappearing. So that just means I won’t get stung next summer, right? Well it’s slightly more complicated. See, unlike most of the things we do that damage the Earth have a consequences that take a long time to take effect or to be able to see them taking effect. With bees however, it is suggested that the human population would last only four more years after bees are extinct. Bees are undoubtedly the most essential insect to the human food chain. Honey bees pollinate almost every type of flower, nut, fruit, and vegetable that humans eat.
In less commercialized countries that depend on natural pollination within their food supply, fewer honey bees would mean widespread hunger, even starvation if the species were to completely die out.
Then, about five months ago, some beekeepers began reporting 80 percent to 90 percent losses.
The numbers are considered inexact because they’re based on beekeepers’ estimates rather than a scientific survey.
During the final three months of 2006, a distressing number of honeybee colonies began to diminish from the United States, and beekeepers all over the country have reported unprecedented losses. According to scientists, the domesticated honeybee population has declined by about 50 percent in the last 50 years.
What we fail to appreciate is that without an abundance of bees to pollinate crops, the United States could lose as much as 30 percent of its food supply.
The bees are the modern-day counterpart of the canaries that miners used to carry with them as they descended into the mine shafts. If the birds died, it was an early warning of a buildup of toxic gases in the mine.
When canaries die or bees disappear, we are being cautioned that we too are in immediate danger. It is time to listen to the message nature is telling us. Denial – the favorite ploy of those whose profits are being threatened – is no longer an option.
Of the 100 crop species that provide 90 percent of the world’s food, over 70 are pollinated by bees. Some 35 per cent of our diet depends on pollination of crops by bees and it is often said that if bees died out, humans would follow just four years later…Everything natural that is derived from a plant would become extinct.
My post tomorrow will be how to help the bees, so stay tuned.