Colony Collapse: Do Massive Bee Die-Offs Mean an End to Our Food System as We Know it?
By Scott Thill, AlterNet. Posted June 11, 2007.
It may sound like urban legend but it’s not. A frightening trend of bee colony collapses could lead to everything from a radically transformed diet to an overall wipeout of the world’s food supply.
The joke may have fallen flat, but this time no one could blame Bill Maher. Sure, it happened on the May 4, 2007 installment of his show Real Time With Bill Maher, but CNN personality and senior medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta was the one delivering the punch line, and it seems he was the only one in the room who believed the issue of Earth’s mysteriously vanishing honeybees was a joke. And while some may argue that he stayed on message, promoting his May 19 documentary called Danger: Poison Food, he nevertheless fumbled for answers when Maher asked him about what could be killing a major component of the nation’s food supply.
“Gosh, I don’t know,” Gupta answered, searching for context. “The — you know, with regards to bees in particular, I’m not sure what’s killing the bees. I’m not sure what’s killing the birds or the bees.”
Cue the laugh track.
In Gupta’s defense, a few weeks or months ago, the increasing disappearance of the honeybees, known now by the technical term Colony Collapse Disorder, had that feel of an urban legend, a phenomenon so esoteric and strange that it sounded like something out of science fiction. Except it’s not: It’s a frightening trend that, according to those hard at work at solving the problem at universities and organizations worldwide, could lead to everything from a radically transformed diet to an overall wipeout of the world’s food supply.
“It is real,” argued Dewey M. Caron, professor of entomology at the University of Delaware and one of several authorities investigating the issue with the Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium’s Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group (MAAREC). “We surveyed a few states and figured out that half to three-fourths of a million bee colonies have died. This is no urban legend. It is serious.”
What is so serious is not only that the bees themselves are dying off without a smoking gun present, but that most people have no idea of the role they play in the food supply at large. Commercial beehives pollinate over a third of America’s crops, and that web of nourishment encompasses everything from fruits like peaches, apples, cherries, strawberries and more, to nuts like California almonds, 90 percent of which are helped along by the honeybees. Without this annual pollination, you could conceivably kiss those crops goodbye, to say nothing of the honey bees produce or the flowers they also fertilize.
But as the world has grown, so has its hunger and crowds, which has paved the way for the death of wild pollinators as well as the importation of honeybees from different climates in order to have massive crop pollination.
In the case of California’s aforementioned almonds, the largest managed pollination event in the world, the growing season occurs in February, well before local hives have suitably increased their populations to handle the pollination load. As a result, the region is increasingly dependent on the importation of hives from warmer climates.
The same goes for apple crops in New York, Washington and Michigan, as well as blueberries in Maine. Almonds alone require more than one-third of all the managed honeybees in the United States, so it’s entirely possible that the honeybees may have already been stretched to the breaking point, as far as environmental and chemical stressors are concerned. In fact, it’s safe to say that the nation’s honeybees, already a tireless lot, are totally exhausted from work.
“The honeybee is so important for pollination of hundreds of agricultural crops, because humans have made it so,” Caron explained. “We destroyed the natural pollinators, plowed up the area they needed to live and continued to replace their habitats with strip malls and housing developments. So, farmers have come to rely on honeybees because of mushrooming human populations and our own destructive habits to the natural ecology.”
And not just here, either: The disappearance is under way across the world. Regions of Iran are experiencing the same phenomenon, as are countries like Poland, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Germany and more every day, including Latin American and Asia. The breadth of the problem suggests that a major environmental balance could be to blame — what else is new? — yet no authority will sign off on the possibility and the specific causes still remain unknown.
“Other countries are also experiencing serious declines of honeybee colonies,” said Maryann Frazier, senior extension associate at MAAREC and the department of entomology at Penn State University. “But we are not certain that the cause behind the losses here in the United States are the same as those causing [losses] in other parts of the world.”
Throw in the fact that this type of thing has been recorded as a regular occurrence since the 19th century, and you have an apiary mystery of mammoth proportions.
“Bee colonies die all the time,” Caron added. “They die over winter, lose queens, are destroyed by pests or diseases. But this is different, as the bees are simply gone and do not develop normally.”
“We have had honeybee die-offs in the past which may or may not be related to the current situation,” said Frazer. “However, they seem to be getting more severe. If the problem of honeybee health isn’t addressed quickly, there could be serious consequences.”
Read the rest here.