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Please Lord, not the bees

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It sounds like the start of a Kurt Vonnegut novel:

Nobody worried all that much about the loss of a few animal species here and there until one day the bees came to their senses and decided to quit producing an unnaturally large surplus of honey for our benefit. One by one, they went on strike and flew off to parts unknown.

Among the various mythologies of the apocalypse, fear of insect plagues has always loomed larger than fear of species loss. But this may change, as a strange new plague is wiping out our honey bees one hive at a time. It has been named Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, by the apiculturalists and apiarists who are scrambling to understand and hopefully stop it. First reported last autumn in the U.S., the list of afflicted countries has now expanded to include several in Europe, as well as Brazil, Taiwan, and possibly Canada. (1)(24)(29)

Apparently unknown before this year, CCD is said to follow a unique pattern with several strange characteristics. Bees seem to desert their hive or forget to return home from their foraging runs. The hive population dwindles and then collapses once there are too few bees to maintain it. Typically, no dead bee carcasses lie in or around the afflicted hive, although the queen and a few attendants may remain.

The defect, whatever it is, afflicts the adult bee. Larvae continue to develop normally, even as a hive is in the midst of collapse. Stricken colonies may appear normal, as seen from the outside, but when beekeepers look inside the hive box, they find a small number of mature bees caring for a large number of younger and developing bees that remain. Normally, only the oldest bees go out foraging for nectar and pollen, while younger workers act as nurse bees caring for the larvae and cleaning the comb. A healthy hive in mid-summer has between 40,000 and 80,000 bees.

Perhaps the most ominous thing about CCD, and one of its most distinguishing characteristics, is that bees and other animals living nearby refrain from raiding the honey and pollen stored away in the dead hive. In previously observed cases of hive collapse (and it is certainly not a rare occurrence) these energy stores are quickly stolen. But with CCD the invasion of hive pests such as the wax moth and small hive beetle is noticeably delayed. (2)

Among the possible culprits behind CCD are: a fungus, a virus, a bacterium, a pesticide (or combination of pesticides), GMO crops bearing pesticide genes, erratic weather, or even cell phone radiation. “The odds are some neurotoxin is what’s causing it,” said David VanderDussen, a Canadian beekeeper who recently won an award for developing an environmentally friendly mite repellent. Then again, according to Dennis vanEngelsdorp, the top bee specialist with the Pennsylvania State Department of Agriculture, “We are pretty sure, but not certain, that it is a contagious disease.” Their comments notwithstanding, most scientists are unwilling to say they understand the problem beyond describing its outward appearance. Perhaps a government or UN task force would be a good idea right about now. (3)(25)

According to an FAQ published on March 9, 2007 by the Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group based primarily at Penn State University, the first report of CCD was made in mid-November 2006 by Dave Hackenberg, a Pennsylvania beekeeper overwintering his 2900 hives in Florida. Only 1000 survived. Soon other migratory beekeepers reported similar heavy losses. Subsequent reports from beekeepers painted a picture of a marked increase in die-offs, which led to the present concern among bee experts. (2)

The name CCD was invented by vanEngelsdorp and his colleagues at Penn State. It reflects their somewhat medical view of the situation. The BBC suggested in a sub-headline to a story on CCD that the problem would be more aptly named the “vanishing bee syndrome.” This proposal may have merit, considering how mass opinion polls influence policy these days. (4)

News of the CCD problem hit all of the major media networks in February 2007. A widely run Associated Press story said reports of unusual colony deaths have come in from at least 22 states, and that some commercial beekeepers reported losing more than half of their bees. The same story informed that autopsies of CCD bees showed higher than normal levels of fungi, bacteria and other pathogens, as well as weakened immune systems. It appears as if the bees have got the equivalent of AIDS. (5)

An April 15, 2007 story in The Independent reported that the west coast of the U.S. may have lost 60% of its commercial bee population, with an even greater 70% loss on the east coast. The same story said that one of London’s biggest bee-keepers recently reported 23 of his 40 hives empty. But, the U.K. Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was quoted as saying, “There is absolutely no evidence of CCD in the UK.” (6)

One must wonder where the truth lies considering the level of sensationalism prevalent in the British press. Case in point, this same story (among several others, to be fair) attributes a juicy but dubious quote to Einstein: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left.” (6)(7)

Einstein, in all likelihood, never said that, but if he did, it is a justifiable exaggeration. Bees certainly are important, and it will get ugly if we lose them. “It’s not the staples,” said Jeff Pettis of the U.S. Agricultural Research Service. “If you can imagine eating a bowl of oatmeal every day with no fruit on it, that’s what it would be like” without honeybee pollination. (8)

The beekeeping industry underpins the American agricultural industry to the tune of $US 15 billion or more. The picture is similar in many countries, especially in the West. Honey bees are used commercially to pollinate about one third of crop species in the U.S. This includes almonds, broccoli, peaches, soybeans, apples, pears, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, and strawberries. Other insects, including other kinds of bees, may be used to pollinate some of these crops, but only bees are reliable on a commercial scale. If the bees go, we will see a change for the worse at our local supermarkets. (1)

Of course everyone is hoping for a quick solution to appear, and tantalizing reports have emerged. Recent military research at Edgewood Chemical Biological Center claims to have narrowed the likely cause of CCD to a virus, a micro-parasite or both. This work used a new technology called the Integrated Virus Detection System (IVDS), which can rapidly screen samples for pathogens.

These virus laden samples were sent to UC San Francisco, where a suspicious fungus was also discovered in them, suggesting the possibility that the fungus is either an immunosuppressive factor or the fatal pathogen that kills the bees. These “highly preliminary” findings were announced in an April 25, 2007 Los Angeles Times story with the headline, “Experts may have found what’s bugging the bees.” The story called it “the first solid evidence pointing to a potential cause,” and even noted that “there is reason to believe this fungus can be controlled by the antibiotic fumagillin.” (10) (25)

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Peter Dearman is a Canadian teaching English and living in Taiwan. (edit) Now he runs a bar too. He is concerned about the generally high level of bad things happening in the world today, especially on the matters of depleted uranium, repression (more...)

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