Larry Lyons: Where have the honey bees gone?Published 2:50pm Wednesday, September 30, 2009
The problem is a severe die off of honey bees. A large portion of our fruit, vegetable and agriculture crops require pollination, a process almost solely dependant on honey bees. It goes far beyond the produce counter. If clover and alfalfa don’t get pollinated beef, milk and cheese products will be affected and on and on. Wild honey bee populations have long been in serious decline but that hasn’t gotten much attention.
After all, the commercial bee keeping industry was there to conveniently fill in for them. Today the major agriculture areas rely almost entirely on professional bee keepers to pollinate crops. Millions of hives are trucked all across the country following the growing seasons.
But starting on the east coast in the fall of 2006 the commercial bees suddenly began dying in unbelievable numbers. Some keepers reported 90 percent losses. In just three months the phenomenon spread nationwide. The die off was so fast and enormous it was given a name, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
No one knew the cause. In 2007-2008 the losses from CCD was 36 percent. In 2008-2009 CCD loss dropped slightly to 30 percent. We don’t know where it will go from here. Since bees are so critical to our food supply scientists are scrambling to find the cause but there are still no concrete answers.
CCD is a complicated mystery. Bees are susceptible to many bacteria, fungi and parasites. Compounding the problem is the way the industry operates. Bees are kept in tight confines and continually transported all over the country. Lost colonies are being replaced with bees shipped in from all around the world, mixing gene pools and introducing God knows what. These practices are not only recipes for disaster, they make it extremely difficult to isolate the cause of CCD.
A severe die off in 2005 was blamed on two bee attacking mite species that appeared in the U.S. in the 1990′s and rapidly spread. That was surely devastating to wild bees but keepers learned to control the mites in commercial colonies so we started looking elsewhere. There are many theories. Disease and parasites are obvious suspects as are pesticides, herbicides and other pollution. There is also evidence that poor nutrition may be involved.
Monoculture (single crop) farming and a decline in nectar wildflowers has greatly reduced the pollen diversity. Even cell phones and microwave towers came under scrutiny.
All of these things and others are being frantically researched. Cell phones and microwaves have been exonerated. Diseases and parasites in bee colonies are widespread but can’t be isolated as the sole cause. Pesticide and herbicide issues are still on the table. The current scientific wisdom seems to be that there is no single cause for CCD, but rather a combination of all these things. That sounds to me like a cop out.
Just a few weeks ago researchers at the University of Illinois announced a finding that could be a break through. They found a common denominator in the sick bees; all have specific internal damage that affects the production of protein. This results in low nutrition and inability to cope with toxic chemicals, disease and parasites. All the sick bees had multiple diseases. It’s sort of like bee AIDS. One of the aforementioned mites carries bacteria that damage the bee’s protein making system so many heads are now turning back toward the mites.
I tend to lean toward findings by Penn State University researchers. They found high levels of over a dozen pesticide chemicals present in the brood nest wax and hive pollen (called bee bread) in CCD hives. Some of these chemicals are known to cause learning disabilities and immune system disorders so this meshes with the University of Illinois’ internal damage finding. Not only do we hose down agricultural lands with pesticides, think of the millions of gallons dumped on our wild places for control of mosquitoes, gypsy moths and the like. If pesticides are the culprit the bees have nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. And without the bees our entire food system will collapse.
Larry Lyons writes a weekly outdoor column for Leader Publications.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org