Anyway, breathe easy; Congress has begun talking up the concept of getting involved. On April 26, the Senate Agriculture Committee, perhaps not trusting CNN, heard from representatives of the beekeeping industry just how important a matter this is. Committee Chairman, Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) said the bee decline should be part of the current discussion of a new farm bill. “The U.S. honey industry is facing one of the most serious threats ever from colony collapse disorder,” he stated. “The bee losses associated with this disorder are staggering and portend equally grave consequences for the producers of crops that rely on honeybees for pollination. These crops include many specialty crops and alfalfa, so viable honey bee colonies are critically important across our entire food and agriculture sector.” (17)
Alfalfa? We should be worried because CCD threatens alfalfa and other specialty crops? He means apples and stuff we can assume, because Mark Brady, president of the American Honey Producers Association, had informed the committee that “honey bees pollinate more than 90 food, fiber and seed crops. In particular, the fruits, vegetables and nuts that are cornerstones of a balanced and healthy diet are especially dependent on continued access to honey bee pollination.” Science is always a hard sell. (17)
Even before that committee meeting, on April 16, Senator Clinton wrote a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Mike Johanns, asking “that you provide us (a bipartisan group of senators) with an expedited report on the immediate steps that the Department is and will be taking to determine the causes of CCD, and to develop appropriate countermeasures for this serious disorder. In particular, we ask for a specific explanation of how the Department plans to utilize its existing resources and capabilities, including its four Agricultural Research Service honeybee research labs, and to work with other public and private sector enterprises in combating CCD.” These are fine questions indeed. (28)
Hype or understatement?
Bees are finely tuned machines, much more robot-like than your average species. They operate pretty much like the Borg of Star Trek fame. A honey bee cannot exist as an individual, and this is why some biologists speak of them as super-organisms. They are sensitive barometers of environmental pollution, quite useful for monitoring pesticide, radionuclide, and heavy metal contamination. They respond to a vide variety of pollutants by dying or markedly changing their behavior. Honeybees’ stores of pollen and honey are ideal for measuring contamination levels. Some pesticides are exceptionally harmful to honey bees, killing individuals before they can return to the hive. (18)
Not surprisingly, the use of one or more new pesticides was, and likely remains, on the short list of likely causes of CCD. But more than pesticides could potentially be harming bees. Some scientists suspect global warming. Temperature plays an integral part in determining mass behavior of bees. To mention just one temperature response, each bee acts as a drone thermostat, helping cool or warm the hive whenever it isn’t engaged in some other routine.
As you might expect, rising temperatures in springtime cause bees to become active. Erratic weather patterns caused by global warming could play havoc with bees’ sensitive cycles. A lot of northeastern U.S. beekeepers say a late cold snap is what did the damage to them this year. Bill Draper, a Michigan beekeeper, lost more than half of his 240 hives this spring, but it wasn’t his worst year for bee losses, and he doesn’t think CCD caused it. He thinks CCD might stem from a mix of factors from climate change to breeding practices that put more emphasis on some qualities, like resistance to mites, at the expense of other qualities, like hardiness. (32)
According to Kenneth Tignor, the state apiarist of Virginia, another possibility with CCD is that the missing bees left their hives to look for new quarters because the old hives became undesirable, perhaps from contamination of the honey. This phenomenon, known as absconding, normally occurs only in the spring or summer, when there is an adequate food supply. But if they abscond in the autumn or winter, as they did last fall in the U.S., Tignor says the bees are unlikely to survive. (19)
A bee colony is a fine-tuned system, and a lot could conceivably go wrong. This is presumably why some scientists suspect cell phone radiation is the culprit behind CCD. This theory holds that radiation from mobile phones interferes with bee navigation systems, preventing them from finding their way home. German research has shown that bees behave differently near power lines. Now, a preliminary study has found that bees refuse to return to their hives when mobile phones are placed nearby. The head researcher said the result might provide a “hint” of a possible cause. Maybe they should check to see if beekeepers suddenly started using BlackBerrys in 2004.
It should be noted that the CCD Working Group at Penn State believes cell phones are very unlikely to be causing the problem. Nor are they interested in the possibility that GMO crops are responsible. Although GMO crops can contain genes to produce pesticides, some of which may harm bees, the distribution of CCD cases does not appear to correlate with GMO crop plantings. (20)
Honey bees are not native to North America or Europe. They are thought to come from Southeast Asia, although some recent research based on genomic studies indicates that their origin is actually in Africa. (21) Regardless, they represent only seven of the approximately 20,000 known species of bees. Apis mellifera, the most commonly domesticated species of honey bee, was only the third insect to have its genome mapped. These useful, and very prevalent, bees are commonly referred to as either Western honey bees or European honey bees. Although it is a non-native species, the honey bee has fit in well in America. It is the designated state insect of fifteen states, which surely reflects its usefulness.
Apis mellifera comes in a wide variety of sub-species adapted to different climates and geographies. Behavior, color and anatomy can be quite different from one sub-species to another, the infamous killer bees being a case in point. The Native Americans called the honey bee “the white man’s fly.” It was introduced to North America by European settlers in the early 1600s, and soon escaped into the wild, spreading as far west as the Rocky Mountains. Thus, there are significant numbers of feral hives in North America, though most of the honey bees you will see are working bees.
But you may not have even seen one for a while. These days, many gardeners are discovering that they must hand pollinate garden vegetables, thanks to widespread pollinator decline. It is more than fair to say that the extreme importance of honey bees as pollinators today stems from the fact that native pollinators are in decline almost everywhere.
The pollination of the American almond crop, which occurs in February and March, is the largest managed pollination event in the world, requiring more than one third of all the managed honey bees in the United States. Massive numbers of hives are transported for this and other key pollinations, including apples and blueberries. Honey bees are not particularly efficient pollinators of blueberries, but they are used anyway. We depend on managed honey bees because we are addicted to a monoculture-based managed agricultural sector.
There has been criticism that media coverage of the CCD story, perhaps in its quest to achieve the requisite ‘balance,’ has been too rosy. Some stories note that other pollinators are more significant than honey bees for many crops. But these stories seldom go on to tell how other pollinators are facing problems too. The BBC recently reported on the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, which is currently enlisting the public’s help to catalogue bumblebee populations. The story noted that several of the U.K.’s 25 species are endangered, and three have gone extinct in recent years. (22)
Another recent story in The Register stated that several U.K. bumblebee species are “heading inexorably for extinction.” According to scientists, the process is caused by “pesticides and agricultural intensification” which could have a “devastating knock-on effect on agriculture.” The disappearance of wildflower species has also been implicated in the British bumblebee decline. (23)(20)