Tuesday, August 26, 2008

What's All The Buzz About?

- Albert Einstein

In case you missed it, disappearing bees became a bit of a story a couple of years ago. It's one of those stories that wasn't new, still isn't new, yet every time it comes up, people go, "huh, reeeeeally? We should be doing something about this." Then they go back to their everyday life only to be reminded of it again a couple of years later, thus the cycle continues. Even before 2004, the previous 50 years saw a 50% decline in the domestic bee population. Since then, it's only gotten worse. Why is this a problem you might ask, sounds like our picnics will be more enjoyable in the future. Well, thing is these bees are responsible for anywhere between 15 and 30 percent of the food we eat. Everything from almonds to zucchinis rely heavily on honey bees for pollination. Oh yeah, and they're also responsible for honey. If money is more important to you than food, here's a thought, bees provide an estimated $57 billion in pollination services as well as other free labor in the U.S. alone. In the UK 1/3 of honey bees didn't survive this winter, Argentina, the world's largest honey producer reported a 27% drop in honey yield. What's worse, disappearing bees are now threatening ice cream sellers!

Here's where we are. By February of 2007 the problem had become so acute that it got its own name, Colony Collapse Disorder, the phenomenon in which worker bees from a colony or hive abruptly disappear, and the colony dies. The winter of 2006 saw the loss of between 30 and 90 percent of some bee keepers hives. Winter losses are expected, but not of this magnitude. A survey of managed hives done in fall and winter 2007 by the Bee Research Lab and the Apiary Inspectors of America showed that beekeepers lost about 35 percent of their hives compared to 31 percent in 2006, so bee losses overall are not improving. The alarm bells have been ringing, research is being carried out, yet we still don't know the exact cause. It seems to come down to these factors: diseases caused by mites and other parasites, the spaying of crops with pesticides (or insecticides, apparently some people find the term PESTicides politically incorrect!), environmental stress, GMOs, and maybe even mobile (cell) phones! It appears that were not going to find one smoking gun cause, but a combination of the above.

The biggest factor seems to be the mites. Specifically the varroa mite, a bloodsucking parasite that attacks young and adult honeybees. Attacked bees often have deformed wings and abdomens and a shortened life span. In addition, these mites are particularly good at transmitting diseases, particularly viruses. Another mite, the tracheal mite, gets inside adult bees and clogs their breathing tubes, essentially suffocating the insects. Combined with viruses, particularly the Israeli acute paralysis virus (IAPV), which was found in 96.1 percent of the CCD-bee samples in a 2007 report, it could be one of the main factors. IAPV's discovery in 2004 coincided with the beginning of a controversial trend in U.S. beekeeping of importing large numbers of bees from Australia. Furthermore, every CCD-afflicted bee colony they sampled turned out to have originated in Australia or to have been exposed to bees imported from Australia.

The damage being caused by chemicals sprayed on crops seems to be also having an effect on bees. Most probably, these chemicals are acting as triggers, which when coupled with other factors, are having a catastrophic effect. Penn State scientists analyzing pollen, wax, adult bees and brood (larvae) have found the presence of dozens of chemicals, including pesticides used by agricultural producers to protect crops and by beekeepers to control hive pests such as parasitic mites. Sounds like a vicious circle to me. The most dangerous chemicals may be nicotinyl insecticides (also known as neonicotinoids). Both Germany and France have moved in recent months to ban different versions of the pesticides. Germany banned the pesticide clothianidin and seven others after heaps of dead bees were found near fields of corn coated in the pesticide, and in response to scientists who report that the insecticide severely impairs, and often kills, the honeybees that corn and other crops depend on for pollination. France has outlawed the use of the pesticide imidacloprid which has been linked to disoriented behavior in honeybees – and may help explain why many CCD cases result in abandoned hives. The companies involved are Bayer and Monsanto, here is Bayer's assurance of the safety of their product and a Nevada Club urging to ban similar products in the US. It seems to get worse as both companies have recently signed agreements to begin manufacturing neonicotinic-coated genetically engineered corn. Just as protesters successfully fought to get imidacloprid banned in France, many are trying to fight this latest move.

In research done earlier this year scientists are sounding more alarms over the fact that diseases are being spread from commercially bred bees to wild bees (Scientific paper here the link in the article 404s). We've grown dependent on commercially raised bees to pollinate much of our fields. Over the past 100 years or so we've been raising bees in large scale operations where pesticides are used in hives to fumigate for varroa mites and antibiotics are fed to the bees to prevent disease. Hives are hauled long distances by truck, often several times during the growing season, to provide pollination services to industrial agriculture crops, which further stresses the colonies and exposes them to agricultural pesticides and GMOs. The study looked at how disease might spread from "spillover" of runaway commercial bees to their wild cousins. They built a mathematical model that predicted a relatively slow build-up of infection in nearby wild bumblebee populations over weeks or months culminating in a burst of transmission generating an epidemic wave that could affect nearly all of wild bees exposed. This model also predicted a decline in infection rates as you moved away from the greenhouse. The patterns that had been predicted by their mathematical model were borne out by studying the wild bees.

There are many competing voices clamouring to be heard on this issue, each one trying to shout louder than the other, when it seems that in fact it is a combination of all the factors. With the current worldwide food crisis, the cost of bee pollination is adding another inflationary pressure as bee rentals have at least tripled in the past few years. The sad part is that not much is being done about, especially at the funding level. The farm bill passed last year by the U.S. House of Representatives, which calls for $286 billion to be spent over the next five years on everything from school snacks to biofuels, earmarked no funds specifically for CCD research. It's pathetic that a $250,000 donation for research from Haagen Daas is seen as manna from heaven. Mmmm, speaking of that, I'm going to get me some strawberry ice cream sprinkled with almonds now, while the getting's good!