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Please Lord, not the bees

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One wonders why the trade name of a pesticide made it into such a story, but the presence of pathogens in bees should come as no surprise to anyone who has been keeping up to date on bee health. Nearly all beekeepers use a variety of chemical and pesticide treatments on their hive boxes out of sheer necessity. A pantheon of mites, fungi and microbes prey on bees. These pests are predictably developing resistance to the chemical treatments we use to fight them. If the new IVDS results are conclusive and lead to a silver bullet solution, that will be wonderful, but such a simple model of CCD is unlikely to be the real key to saving our prime pollinators. (9)

It is worth noting that, while CCD has been presented to the media as a sudden new problem, these same theories about causative infections have already been presented to explain previous bee die-offs, especially those in the spring of 2005, which were attributed to the now infamous varroa mite, a.k.a. “vampire mite,” which began infecting American honey bees in 1987. (31)

About the size of a pinhead, and with eight legs, it feeds on the blood of adult bees like a tick, and even worse, it also eats the bee larvae. Varroa is the bane of beekeepers everywhere except China, where it originated, and the honey bees have local resistance. In a case of sadly ironic timing, Hawaii just reported its first case of varroa a few weeks ago. (26)

LiveScience senior writer, Robert Roy Britt wrote in a May, 2005 story about the mite: “Up to 60 percent of hives in some regions have been wiped out. Entire colonies can collapse within two weeks of being infested. North Carolina fears it is on the verge of an agricultural crisis. No state is immune.” (11)

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A Science Daily story dated May 18, 2005, and sourced to Penn State, purported to explain why varroa was so bad. Entitled, “Bee Mites Suppress Bee Immunity, Open Door for Viruses and Bacteria,” it explained research into levels of ‘deformed wing virus,’ a mutagenic pathogen that is believed to persist in bee populations because it makes guard bees more aggressive. Bees of a given hive normally carry low levels of this virus, but the Penn State researchers found that virus levels shot sky high during secondary infections if, and only if, the bees also had varroa mites. It should be clear why the varroa mite is on everyone’s list of things to examine in the fight against CCD. (12)

Another perspective

Sharon Labchuk is a longtime environmental activist and part-time organic beekeeper from Prince Edward Island. She has twice run for a seat in Ottawa’s House of Commons, making strong showings around 5% for Canada’s fledgling Green Party. She is also leader of the provincial wing of her party. In a widely circulated email, she wrote:

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I’m on an organic beekeeping list of about 1,000 people, mostly Americans, and no one in the organic beekeeping world, including commercial beekeepers, is reporting colony collapse on this list. The problem with the big commercial guys is that they put pesticides in their hives to fumigate for varroa mites, and they feed antibiotics to the bees. They also haul the hives by truck all over the place to make more money with pollination services, which stresses the colonies. (13)

Her email recommends a visit to the Bush Bees Web site at bushfarms.com. Here, Michael Bush felt compelled to put a message to the beekeeping world right on the top page:

Most of us beekeepers are fighting with the Varroa mites. I’m happy to say my biggest problems are things like trying to get nucs through the winter and coming up with hives that won’t hurt my back from lifting or better ways to feed the bees.

This change from fighting the mites is mostly because I’ve gone to natural sized cells. In case you weren’t aware, and I wasn’t for a long time, the foundation in common usage results in much larger bees than what you would find in a natural hive. I’ve measured sections of natural worker brood comb that are 4.6mm in diameter. …What most people use for worker brood is foundation that is 5.4mm in diameter. If you translate that into three dimensions instead of one, it produces a bee that is about half as large again as is natural. By letting the bees build natural sized cells, I have virtually eliminated my Varroa and Tracheal mite problems. One cause of this is shorter capping times by one day, and shorter post-capping times by one day. This means less Varroa get into the cells, and less Varroa reproduce in the cells. (14)

Who should be surprised that the major media reports forget to tell us that the dying bees are actually hyper-bred varieties that we coax into a larger than normal body size? It sounds just like the beef industry. And, have we here a solution to the vanishing bee problem? Is it one that the CCD Working Group, or indeed, the scientific world at large, will support? Will media coverage affect government action in dealing with this issue?

These are important questions to ask. It is not an uncommonly held opinion that, although this new pattern of bee colony collapse seems to have struck from out of the blue (which suggests a triggering agent), it is likely that some biological limit in the bees has been crossed. There is no shortage of evidence that we have been fast approaching this limit for some time.

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“We’ve been pushing them too hard,” Dr. Peter Kevan, an associate professor of environmental biology at the University of Guelph in Ontario, told the CBC. “And we’re starving them out by feeding them artificially and moving them great distances.” Given the stress commercial bees are under, Kevan suggests CCD might be caused by parasitic mites, or long cold winters, or long wet springs, or pesticides, or genetically modified crops. Maybe it’s all of the above. (24)

This conclusion is not surprising, considering how the practice of beekeeping has been made ultra-efficient in a competitive world run by free market forces. Unlike many crops, honey is not given subsidy protection in the United States despite the huge importance of the bee industry to food production. The FDA has hardly moved at all to protect American producers from “honey pretenders” – products containing little or no honey that are imported and sold with misleading packaging. Rare is the beekeeper that does not need pesticide treatments and other techniques falling under the rubric of ‘factory farming.’ (15)

You might be justifiably stunned to know how little money is being thrown at this problem. A January 29, 2007 Penn State press release (just before CCD hit the big networks) stated: “The beekeeping industry has been quick to respond to the crisis. The National Honey Board has pledged $13,000 of emergency funding to the CCD working group. Other organizations, such as the Florida State Beekeepers Association, are working with their membership to commit additional funds.” A quick look at CostofWar.com will tell you that that $13,000 buys about 4 seconds of war at the going rate. Remember, these same scientists had presented the world with a similar threat level two years ago. Apparently they were ignored. (16)

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Peter Dearman is a Canadian teaching English and living in Taiwan. He is concerned about the generally high level of bad things happening in the world today, especially on the matters of depleted uranium, repression in Burma, stolen elections, organ (more...)

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