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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At 3:16 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Many thanks.


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