Monday, April 09, 2007

Bees in My Bonnet

During the last few weeks I have been reading about pets dying from kidney failure after eating contaminated pet food. For over a week, every news show I watched on TV or heard on the radio seemed to include at least one report about this problem. I followed this news with interest because I have four cats.

Meanwhile, there is another story, largely uncovered, that has huge implications for all who eat: honeybees are dying in huge numbers from mysterious causes.

I happened to see a report about the honeybees on public TV. My first thought was, now what? My second thought was, honey prices will probably skyrocket. Then I felt a chill of fear when I realized the major implications of this problem. It's not just about honey!

Honeybees are pollinators. Several species including some birds, bats, and other insects also pollinate, but honeybees exclusively play that essential role in the life-cycle of many major food crops.* In fact, they are such adaptable and effective pollinators, their role has been built into the life-cycle of roughly a third of the foods we eat.

I have to admit, I have idyllic visions of suited-up beekeepers as gentle, brave folk who remove honey from hives in the far corner of a peaceful, rustic, fruit orchard. My image of beekeeping is probably circa the early 1900s, when hay-stuffed scarecrows also figured prominently in fields. Maybe this vision still holds for the occasional small farm, but it isn't true for larger operations which harvest most of our food.

Many commercial honeybees don't live a year-round pastoral existence in a given geographic area. Instead, they are trucked to different locations to work the bloom cycles of different crops. Once situated among flowering plants, the bees spread pollen from plant to plant, fertilizing blooms, making it possible for the plant crop to bear fruit (or vegetable or nut). At the end of one plant's bloom cycle, the hives are packed on a truck and moved to another field or orchard to pollinate another crop.

What is happening to these honeybees?

Toward the end of 2006, East Coast beekeepers started to report “alarming and unprecedented” bee colony losses. New and unfamiliar patterns for this particular form of bee colony death were recently named "Colony Collapse Disorder" (CCD). Large numbers of adult worker bees (50 to 90%) suddenly disappear from the hive and die. This sudden disappearance is unheard-of behavior in normally highly-structured bee colonies where typically, dead bees remain near the hive. For colonies where sudden collapse has occurred, small numbers of mostly young bees are left. They are not able to continue pollination or care for the remaining hive brood and the queen.

This pattern of sudden colony collapse is new, and the cause has not been determined. Early studies of collapsed colonies suggest a range of possible causes including: suppression of honeybee immune systems; biological stress from transportation and confinement; poor nutrition; build up of chemical contaminants in the hive or the bees; lack of genetic diversity in the bee populations; new or stronger disease agents like parasites, mites or other pathogens; or some combination of the above factors.

The phenomenon started on the East Coast and has now spread to twenty-four states in the US, and reports of CCD are starting to be heard in Canada and Europe.

This is big news.....big, frightening news. Yet I have had to dig through congressional reports, Web sites for beekeepers, and public radio and television reports to research the CCD phenomenon. I feel frightened as I imagine the long-term impact of this sudden development.

When I ask my friends and loved ones if they have heard about it, many - who tend to be well informed - have heard nothing, or have seen or heard reports only on public television or radio, or have read about CCD on business pages of newspapers. For some reason, honeybee Colony Collapse Disorder is not being covered in commercial news venues.

Why isn't this news getting the coverage the pet food contamination story got? I wonder if my personal response to the news is over the top. Is this simply a financial dilemma for beekeepers and crop industries? To me, it seems much more than that. Could it be the beginning of a Hurricane Katrina story in agriculture?

I think we need to be talking about the future impact of bee colony collapse so we can develop strategies for surviving the possible food shortages that could result from crops that are not pollinated. While beekeepers are frantically communicating about the impact on their industry, the true implications of this development may affect us all. This is not simply an economic concern; potentially, it seems a threat to our basic survival.

This morning I awoke in a state of reverie. I wonder, what stop-gap measures can be taken until the causes of honeybee colony collapse are identified and remedied? I picture a revival of small household gardens where the gardeners hand-fertilize their plants during the bloom cycle. I imagine groups of volunteers doing this in more traditional agricultural settings. I know this is more naive fantasy than solution to a complex problem.

But maybe there is a sliver of wisdom here. The vast majority of us have relinquished our essential relationship with the plant world to professional plant growers. Has this come at a major cost? Might we reestablish our connection by taking a direct hand in plant life-cycles until the bee populations can be revived?

In the end, I am left with questions like this.

Are losses in natural systems occurring because we, as individuals, have lost contact with nature? Can we restore our connection?

*Alfalfa hay and seed, almonds, apples, asparagus, avocados, blueberries, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cherries, cranberries, cucumbers, kiwi fruits, legume seeds, macadamia nuts, onions, pumpkins, squash, and sunflowers almost exclusively (90 to 100%) depend on honeybees for pollination. Other crops that rely on honeybee pollination to a lesser degree include apricots, beets, canola (rapeseed), citrus fruits, cotton, grapes, melon, nectarines, olives, peaches, peanuts, pears, plums, soybeans, strawberries, and vegetable seeds.

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Monday, April 02, 2007

Cat Food?

I went to the vet twice in the last couple of weeks to take my cats for their yearly check-ups and shots. Kitty Carlyle's appointment was the day after the news broke about deaths linked to pet food. Not much was known at that point but it looked like pets who were eating "the good stuff” - foil packages of premium food - were victims. Phew, we were safe; my cats eat dry kibble from industrial-sized bags I buy at Costco.

The following week, I showed up with Brondis, my big yellow male cat. The vet had a long printed list of recalled pet food products. Again, it was mostly the high quality stuff from cans, chunks-in-gravy style food. My cats share only an occasional can of mushy stew served as a treat. Relief - safe again!

I started to follow the news coverage. There was an undertone of apology: this isn’t soft news; after all, our pets are family members. My thought was: exactly, I love my cats.

As the days pass more information is emerging. There is speculation about the safety of some dry food products and wheat gluten is identified as the problem ingredient. I read the list of ingredients on our bag of cat food. Thank goodness, no wheat gluten. Again, we're OK. The cat food I buy is made with chicken and rice and a whole host of chemical-sounding ingredients.

The problem wheat gluten is from China. What the heck is gluten anyway? It’s the protein in grains after starch is removed. Wheat gluten makes bagels and pizza dough chewy and delicious. Pet food gravy is thickened with wheat gluten and it is probably a protein source too.

The problem with this pet food gluten is that it is linked to a contaminant. During the last few days, the news vacillates between naming the culprit as aminopterin, a chemical used as rat poison or cancer chemotherapy; or melamine, a chemical found in plastic resins and pesticides. The source of the contaminant is not identified.

With the exception of formerly-feral Brondis who adeptly hunts (and eats) birds and small rodents, my cats eat a human-engineered diet of kibble - neat pellets nutritionally balanced to promote long, healthy lives. I always read the packages carefully when I buy a new food. I want my feline buddies to be healthy (and I want the vet bills to be manageable).

When I really think about it, what self-respecting cat wants to eat wheat gluten or rice? I am mortified when I see feathers or slain, partially-eaten small rodents on the patio. (Brondis likes to share.) But, then, he is being true to his nature. Cats are, after-all, carnivores. Carnivores eat meat!

Beloved carnivore pets ate scraps and bones when my parents were growing up. Now, our pets dine exclusively on meals from bags, boxes, and cans. Scientific research goes into the development of these products. Everything is engineered for species-appropriate nutrition. Key words hearkening good health for humans like antioxidant and Omega 3 are strategically placed on attractive packaging. Feline-specific maladies are mentioned: hair balls and urinary problems are minimized by this food. Coat and skin health are promoted. Yes, I read the product descriptions carefully.

This whole story has an undercurrent I have not heard explicitly spoken about in the news coverage. The coverage is very specific: this is pet food.

My thought is this is food (period).

The factor that causes most concern for me is that the list of pet food products being recalled grows longer every day. Today a feline favorite in my household was added to the list. I don't serve it all that frequently, but a Pounce product is being recalled as a precaution. The contaminated wheat gluten now seems widespread in the manufacture of pet food.

As I learn about the manufacture of food products, I am beginning to realize that a complex list of altered food subtances coming from a large range of sources is commonplace. If something goes wrong with one ingredient, the implications can be massive. This holds true for food that is manufactured for pets and for people.

I was hiking in the woods this weekend and my companion and I stopped and shared what one friend optimistically calls "a protein bar". This "nutrition bar" is made specifically for women. The attractive foil packaging extols the virtues of the product as having more fiber and less sugar. Antioxidants are mentioned. I squinted to read the ingredients. Many are organic, some are isolates and extracts; brown rice is included as brown rice syrup. I picture people in lab coats researching these virtuous cookies for women who like to eat well while they exercise...or in my case hike or bike.

My thought this weekend was Hmm, human kibble.