© Kat Morgenstern, June 2007
There has been much buzz on the internet and in the media in recent months regarding a potentially catastrophic phenomenon - the mysterious disappearance of honey bees. In the US beekeepers from 24 States have reported unusually high losses of their colonies. But the phenomenon is not restricted to the US alone. Bees have also disappeared in parts of Europe and the Middle East, although losses are less drastic. Scientists and Beekeepers are confounded by the odd phenomenon, which despite concerted efforts to grasp at possible clues, remains unexplained.
Bees play a vital role in our ecology and economy. Ancient cultures have revered and worshipped honey bees for all the wonderful things they provide: honey, bee pollen, propolis, jelly royal, and beeswax are the most obvious. They also revered them as a source supplier for one of the earliest known inebriants - fermented honey drinks were among the first alcoholic beverages known to man. They still survive as honey wine and mead. And finally, even the ancients were well aware of their importance in bringing abundance to their crops.
Honeybees are vitally important pollinators. Although they are not the only creatures that perform this job, they are among the most efficient - and, importantly for agriculture, they are the easiest to manage. Over thousands of years man has developed a symbiotic relationship with bees, although the trade off has been heavily in mankind's favour. These days beekeeping is not a very romantic pursuit - it resembles the meat industry in the way these precious little creatures are manipulated, drugged and exploited.
Commercially kept bees are specially bred to increase beyond their natural size in order to make them more efficient pollinators, fed and sprayed with antibiotics to protect them against certain parasites and fungi and on top of it all, they have to battle with polluted food supplies that are not only contaminated with common environmental toxins, but also with poisons that are specifically designed to kill insects. Now they also have to deal with GM plants, global warming, which affects food availability cycles, and the stress of being moved around the country, thousands of miles at a time, to help pollinate different crops in different regions. In fact, 'rent-a-hive' operations present a greater source of income for beekeepers than any revenue they might expect from honey production.
Despite the fact that honey bees are not native to the US, a third of our agricultural production depends on pollination by honeybees - this is largely due to the fact that many of our crops are also not native to the land. Native crops continue to be pollinated by native species of bees and other pollinators, which seem to be unaffected by the recent syndrome that honeybees are suffering from.
The phenomenon, which has been dubbed 'Colony Collapse Syndrome' bears some very strange features: the bees don't seem to be dying in or near the hives - they just disappear. Very likely they are dying somewhere outside of the hives, but where and why nobody has been able to say. Also, very uncharacteristically, other swarms or predators seem to be reluctant to attack and rob the dead hive of its remaining food supply, which appears to be an indication that the nectar may be polluted.
In some instances where dead bees have been found, there seem to be a several pathogens present, each of which could be blamed for their demise - but what they really appear to indicate is that the bees' immune system has somehow been compromised - whether due to stress, malnutrition or exposure to toxic chemicals remains to be discovered. So far it has not been possible to identify one single common factor among all the affected hives. Curiously though, feral bees as well as organically kept bees that are not fed any antibiotic solutions and are not exposed to crops that have been sprayed with insecticidal and other chemicals have not been afflicted by this strange syndrome. Another important factor appears to be related to the size of the bees. As mentioned above, commercial bees are forced to grow bigger than they would under natural conditions. This is achieved by supplying them with foundation that has a larger diameter, which subsequently takes longer to cap over. This also means that the brood takes a little longer to develop and it seems that in that extra time opportunistic mites and viruses can really harm thebees.
My first instinct was that this has to do with GM crops, but as I started reading about the complexities of it all it became apparent that it is not as simple as that. Bees have disappeared in areas where GM crops are not being planted, and furthermore similar, though less severe occurrences of this phenomenon have been observed long before GM crops have ever been planted. Then as now the cause remained a mystery.
One factor, which has not yet been studied extensively, but poses a lot of questions and concerns, is the use of a new class of insecticides called 'neonicotinoids', which are known to be toxic to bees. Neonicotinoid insecticides include imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, clothianidin. This class of insecticide is commonly used to coat GM seeds, and at times they are also sprayed directly on the soil, which facilitate their uptake directly into plant tissues, thus polluting both pollen and nectar. They are classed as 'systemic insecticides', which are active even in very low concentrations. Sub-lethal levels of imidacloprid confuse the honeybees' homing and foraging instincts. Depending on the dosage bees may either be temporarily impaired for a few hours or totally lose their way. This poison jumbles their sense of direction, their sense of smell and thus their olfactory learning ability. It also slows their general activity and ability to fly. These symptoms seem to fit remarkably well into the picture of affected honey bee colonies. Yet, significantly, there have not been any detailed studies of pollen or honey that are left behind in collapsed bee colonies - seems to me that this would be the obvious place to look for clues!
It baffles me that after all these thousands of years of our symbiotic relationship with honeybees, we still don't really know anything about them, and we don't seem to care much, either - even though our food security depends on them to a rather significant degree. Considering that organically kept bees are not affected adversely, the way ahead is clear. We need honeybees more than they need us. If we want their services we need to radically rethink (or better still, abandon) our destructive agrochemical ways. Organic is the buzz!
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