The Curious Case of the Disappearing Honey Bee

by: Michael Shields (w/ an Introduction by Chris Thompson)

The grocery store’s produce aisles are nearly empty. What few fruits and vegetables do suddenly appear are quickly snatched away by angry throngs of squabbling shoppers. 

Oranges, blueberries and cherries. Apples, almonds and squash. They are all in short supply, along with hundreds of other flowering crops around the world. Once prevalent, these foods have been wiped from the face of the earth, much like the pounding of the surf erases a sandcastle from the beach.

The world’s gargantuan agricultural industry has imploded almost overnight, laying off millions and disrupting the lives of the migrant populations who depend on these jobs for income. One by one the economies of multiple Latin American countries fall into decline, its societies marred by cycles of rebellion and strife. 

Farmers can no longer pollinate their crops and en masse they go bankrupt, their already strained federal government’s no longer able to subsidize such losses. What few viable honey bee colonies do remain are closely guarded, controlled by the wealthy ruling elite. Kept hidden from view and isolated from the world, they are protected from the scourge of diseases and changing climate that has encircled the globe. A single honey bee is more precious than a diamond or even an ounce of gold. An orange costs ten dollars. A glass of orange juice is even more obscene. Deficiency diseases like scurvy and rickets wash over the populace as natural vitamin supplements fall into short supply, and the prices of artificial and synthetic sources skyrocket. 

Scientists are scrambling to come up with a solution, a magic bullet to the crashing of the world’s food supplies, but it is an uphill battle and a race against time. Alternate pollinators such as birds and insects are employed but their numbers are simply insufficient to keep up with the worlds demands for vegetables and fruits. Genetically modified crops, artificial pollination, and the cloning of resistant honey bees are all explored but ultimately never pan out. There is just nothing that can replace the efficiency of the natural honey bee. Millions will die from malnourishment and disease, and many millions more will suffer economic and political hardships. The world has drastically changed. The fragile balance maintained against Mother Nature’s perpetual crush has tipped in her favor, and Humanity struggles to regain itself. 

Such are the conditions for Man in a world without honey bees. And if things continue they way that they are, this might be a reality more sooner than we think.

I have a confession to make. I was part of the problem. I am partly to blame.

Over the next few weeks the story of the honey bees, and the drastic reduction in their numbers, should bleed back into the public consciousness. The talking heads will begin their chattering, and concern over the population loss, and what this means to the well-being of our agricultural machine, will be center stage. Old theories will resurface, new ones will be hatched, and concern will appropriately swell. Mostly, they will delve into the overzealous use of pesticides in our country, and even, the rampant rise in cellphone communication. Opportunistic insects like Varroa mites will be taken to task for their role in the population collapse, and the natural rhythms of these highly-organized insects will be examined and explained. While these considerations are valid and demand our full attention, this season’s massive honey bee decline will also have a great deal to do with 2014’s unforgiving winter, one that just wouldn’t end. Let’s begin there…

The official numbers have yet to be tallied and released (early USDA estimations found that nearly a quarter of the bees in managed honey bee colonies perished from October 2013 to April 2014), but rest assured, the persistent cold weather that inundated the northern sector of the country this winter will have been more than what beekeepers in the region had expected. Honey bees, extraordinarily, are not that different from humans in how they weather the winter, in that they need more fuel to survive in frigid months. Honey bee colonies consume large quantities of food over the winter months ((Usually around 20 – 40 kg of honey per season.)), but have only a brief period (about 14 weeks) for food collection each year. Honey, to a bee, is their fuel, and in order to create heat for the nest they metabolize it, creating a sort of a honey furnace within their hives. But abnormally cold, long winters deplete fuel reserves at an alarming rate. And with that comes massive fatalities.

Honey bees have much more to fear during the winter months than food shortages alone. The worldwide decline in honey bee colonies during the past 20 years has been routinely linked to the spread of the parasitic mite Varroa destructor and its interaction with certain honey bee viruses. The ectoparasitic mite Varroa destructor, although only the size of a pin head,is widely considered to be the most destructive pest of the honey bee species (Apis mellifera L), in Europe and the United States. It’s an uphill battle in dealing with these mites as the miticides used to control them can be dangerous to the bees they are trying to protect. And on top of that, it’s only a matter of time before the mites develop a resistance to the miticide.

While this merciless winter, and the fierce Varroa mite, must shoulder its share of the blame, this hardly explains the disheartening numbers groups like the The Bee Informed Partnership and the US Department of Agriculture have been reporting. Honey bee population loss due to extreme weather has been thoroughly tracked throughout the years, and the numbers we have seen, and will be encountering, far surpass the 10-15 % annual expected threshold, the percent of losses that many beekeepers consider economically sustainable. Winter loss alone, in concert with parasitic mites, viruses, bacteria, and fungal diseases cannot account for the daunting population decline seen during the last decade. There is something more going on…

Who could ever forget last years New York Times article that opened eyes, dropped jaws and stimulated debate throughout the country? The one that introduced so many to the idea of “Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD) and claimed that half of the bees needed for agriculture have up and disappeared (“A mysterious malady that has been killing honey bees en masse for several years appears to have expanded drastically in the last year, commercial beekeepers say, wiping out 40 percent or even 50 percent of the hives needed to pollinate many of the nation’s fruits and vegetables.”). It was an article that suggested the majority of the blame could be attributed to a powerful new class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids.

Neonicotinoids are a class of neuro-active insecticides chemically similar to nicotine. Neonics, as they are commonly referred to, have been favored because they can be applied in smaller doses than older pesticides (this hardly makes them less problematic however). And they are systemic (remember this word!) pesticides, which means they are soluble enough in water that they can be absorbed by a plant and moved around its tissues making these pesticides last longer and become far more efficient killers. Neonics are often embedded in seeds so that the plant itself carries the chemical that kills any insects that feed on it ((Many believe that this version of the pesticide, that coats the seeds and protects the plant as it matures, is of primary concern.)). And it is this systemic property that is concerning in terms of bee populations, as neonicotinoids can persist for literally months, and it is more than likely that bees are delivering contaminated pollen to their hives, where ensuing generations dine on a steady dose of pesticide that can, in the long run, be catastrophic. In fact, this is the crux of the matter, as it is becoming increasingly indisputable that honey bees are harvesting something that will ultimately kill them, and hauling it back to the hive to feed on all winter.

A study which appeared online May 9, 2014 in the Bulletin of Insectology further strengthens this frightening link between neonicotinoids and the collapse of honey bee populations. The study, which took place at Harvard’s School of Public Health, reaffirms past research suggesting that Colony Collpase Disorder is linked to the “bees’ reduced resistance to mites or parasites as a result of exposure to pesticides,” but the new results also suggest that “the neonicotinoids are causing some other kind of biological mechanism in bees that leads to CCD.” This means that pesticides are triggering something within the bees, some sort of unnatural biological reaction, that is killing them without any involvement of the mites. Frightening stuff, and results that cannot be dismissed. Pesticides may not be wholly responsible for CCD, but their role is both increasingly obvious and substantial.

“We demonstrated again in this study that neonicotinoids are highly likely to be responsible for triggering CCD in honey bee hives that were healthy prior to the arrival of winter” – Chensheng (Alex) Lu, Associate Professor of Environmental Exposure Biology at HSPH.

honetbee pollinate.jpg

My personal experience with pesticides, which is extensive, heightens my concerns. As a student of entomology, biology, plant pathology, and mycology (in regards to plants), it is painstakingly apparent how the natural environment is being affected by rampant pesticide use. And as a certified pesticide applicator for more years than I would like to admit, I have been witness to irresponsible practices that lead me to believe the problem with pesticides, even in a heavily regulated era where public concern remains formidable, is as pervasive as ever ((I do not mean this to suggest there are not responsible and informed companies and applicators. There certainly are. Yet unfortunately they are are more the exception than the rule.)).

Imidicloprids, which belong to a class of chemicals termed neonicotinoids, are the most widely used insecticides in the world, and a class of chemicals I have a great deal of experience with. They are broadly used on farmlands, on golf courses, applied to home foundations for termite control, and used in pest management on our lawns and gardens. They are everywhere, used as a universal remedy, a magic elixir, in pest problems with reckless abandon. I have, time and again, seen pesticides such as these used without true regard for their impact. And I have, admittedly, been a part of an industry far more concerned with immediate aesthetic concerns than with the potential adverse effects of their actions to the ecosystem as a whole. I have seen applicator error and obtuseness. I have perceived far too much inadequate training in a system that regulates itself in ideal rather than practice. And I have, sadly, seen an ungodly amount of chemicals unleashed upon America’s neighborhoods and farmlands.

“Keep in mind that not just bees that are in decline; birds, fireflies, and others are also in decline. – Chenseng Lu

The Agriculture Department says a quarter of the American diet, from apples to broccoli and watermelons to strawberries, depends on pollination by honey bees ((100% of California’s $2.5 billion a year almond crop is dependent on honey bees and the National Agricultural Statistics Service reports that 90% of the avocados grown in the United States rely on honey bees for pollination.)). Fewer bees means smaller harvests, higher food prices, and a growing population left searching for answers to how to feed itself. To protect its bees, Europe banned the use of neonic pesticides last year, while back here in the United States, authorities have so far taken a more passive approach, harping on the idea that these pesticides are just one possible factor for the population declines. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced plans to invest $3 million into efforts to protect and conserve the honey bee population. While welcome, this measure will hardly be enough to turn the tide. Following Europe’s bold course of action doesn’t simply seem logical, but imperative.

Bayer, the leading manufacturer of neonicotinoid pesticides, will surely not go down without a fight ((Bayer filed a court challenge against the EU ban in August last year, saying the EU has falsely linked the pesticide to CCD.)). And it is easy to imagine they have the means and the resolve to wage a lengthy campaign. But truthfully, how much time do we have left before we aren’t simply talking about what’s killing off the honey bees, but rather lamenting over their regrettable demise, while struggling to survive in a world without them?

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