Where Have All the Honey Bees Gone?

 

By Jeanine Grillo

One third of our daily diet relies on honey bee pollination. Almonds, apples, sweet cherries, plums and prunes are examples of crops that require cross-pollination between varieties in order to produce a crop. Bee pollination is necessary for the production of cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, and melons (Mussen, 2007). The greatest value of honey bee pollination is associated with the production of seeds that have worldwide distribution. Twenty vegetables, including asparagus, carrots, celery, onions, radishes, and turnips, produce seeds only when their flowers have been adequately pollinated. Seed production of forage crops such as alfalfa, various clovers, trefoil, and vetch, requires many visits by foraging bees. Drastic reductions in populations of native insect pollinators have created a great need for honey bee pollination to insure re-seeding and perpetuation of wild plants. These plants serve as sources of fruits, nuts, and or vegetation for consumption by various birds and mammals. This vegetation also adds to soil conservation and flood control.

An example of the impact of the loss of the honey bee is the effect on almond production in California's Central Valley. Wild pollinators cannot transport enough pollen from tree to tree. Hundreds of beekeepers descend with billions of bees when the almond trees blossom. More than 580,000 acres of almonds flower simultaneously there. Without the bees' pollination services, California's almond trees would produce forty pounds of almonds per acre; with the bees, they can generate twenty four hundred pounds. Honeybees provide the same service for more than hundred other crops, from lettuce to cranberries to oranges to canola, up and down the West Coast (Nordhaus, 2007).

On the west coast, almost sixty percent of the bee colonies have collapsed; on the east coast and in Texas, more than seventy percent. More than half of all federal states have been affected, as well as parts of Canada. Significant bee colony losses have occurred before but this time the symptoms are different. The bees are leaving the bee hives and not coming back. This phenomenon is known as Colony Collapse Disorder. The causes have not clearly been identified and likely mulitfactorial. Among the suspected causes are the varroa mites, pesticides, genetically modified organisms, and radiation.

Varroa mites are external honeybee parasites that attack both the adults and the brood. Emerging brood may be deformed with missing legs or wings. Untreated infestations of varroa mites that are allowed to increase will kill honeybee colonies. Losses due to these parasitic mites are often confused with causes such as winter mortality and queenlessness if the colonies are not examined for mites. Mites spread from colony to colony by drifting workers and drones within an apiary (Bessin, 2001).

The mites have had a significant impact on honey bee health. However, the Varroa mite, has been ruled out as the sole cause. The affected bees evidently show signs of a weakening of the immune system. Suspects include insecticides and more recently, radiation from mobile telephone masts. Neonicotinoids, a class of insecticide that acts on the central nervous system, have been found in the nectar and the pollen of plants. These pesticides kill honey bees and can also compromise the honey bees' ability to fight off infections (Hopwood, 2008). If colony collapse disorder is due to or exacerbated by neonicotinoids, the problem is likely to worsen. Bayer and Monsanto recently entered into agreements to manufacture neonicotinic-coated genetically engineered corn (Hopwood, 2008).

Genetically modified plants have also been implicated, especially Bt maize and Bt cotton, which are grown on a large scale in the USA. However, bee death has yet to occur in Illinois and Indiana, which are among the main Bt maize growing regions in the USA. By contrast, it does occur in regions where maize cultivation plays only a minor role (Federal Ministry of Education and Research, 2007).

Radiation from cell phones has also been considered a factor in CCD. Dr. George Carlo blames the recent proliferation of electromagnetic waves for the sudden demise of entire bee colonies. He cited the statistic that, at present, there are some 2.5 billion cell phone users around the world. Dr. Carlo commented that the constant electromagnetic background noise seems to disrupt intercellular communication within the individual bees, such that many of them cannot find their way back to the hive. Radiation alone cannot explain the bee deaths. Physicist Jochen Kuhn's studied the influence of high-frequency radiation on bee populations. They arrived at a cautious conclusion, namely that bees exposed to strong radiation had a harder time flying back to their hives than unexposed bees (Dambeck, 2007).

It is most likely that all of these factors together increase stress for the honey bees and contribute to CCD. Without these pollinators, the supply of food would most certainly diminish leading to increased prices. It will be even more difficult for people to convince people to eat more of these foods if the prices dramatically increase. Even though the cause of colony collapse disorder is not clear, it certainly makes sense to minimize the possible factors. It is not likely that the government will change direction given the large lobbying power of companies that manufacture pesticides and GMO seeds. However, the consumer can opt for organic produce and products made without GMOs and drive a change from a grass roots level.

References

Bessin, R. (2007). Varroa mites infesting honey bee colonies. Retrieved January 21, 2009, from http://www.ca.uky.edu/entomology/entfacts/ef608.asp.

Dambeck, H. (2007). Mobile phones and dying bees. Retrieved March 7, 2009, from http://www.spiegel.de/international/world/0,1518,477804,00.html.

Federal Ministry of Education and Research. (2007). Bee death: in search of a cause. Retrieved January 20, 2009, from http://www.gmo-safety.eu/en/news/565.docu.html.

Hopwood, L. (2008). Sierra Club urges EPA to protect honey bees from toxic pesticides. Retrieved January 20, 2009, from http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_13870.cfm.

Mussen, E.C. (2007). Don't underestimate the value of honey bees! Retrieved March 7, 2009, from http://entomology.ucdavis.edu/news/dssericmussen.html.

Norhaus, H. (2007). The silence of the bees. Retrieved January 21, 2009, from http://www.mindfully.org/Heritage/2007/Bees-Silence-Nordhaus19mar07.htm

Reader Response: I cringe that we are still fiddling while Rome burns, but that is what is happening to the world's bee population and health---should be front page headlines, but my finding is that there are vested interests in NOT being front pages lest someone why this and certain other threats (you mentioned "super weeds") to the world's supply...now, the reason I alert my students to such things is that in Behavioral Medicine we are in essence policy creators in healthcare, not just psychology. We are concerned with modern trends that threaten health. We see the pandemics of all chronic disease plus Big Pharma's propensity to make symptoms of other health issues into full-blown pathologies, the biggest one of all being polypharmacology. You are uniquely situated in your academic studies to be a voice of reason on nutrition aspects, which would include the mass-production and delivery of same, whether by food or supplementation---why is the salmonella problem growing into a huge albatross in today's food supply---new control-