To bee or not to bee
Finally the authorities around the world are taking action on colony collapse disorder (CCD) – the term coined for the catastrophic collapse in the number of bees that has occurred in recent years, especially in the USA. In December the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) announced a €100,000 grant to a consortium of European scientific institutions to investigate the problem. Earlier in the year the US Department of Agriculture had provided US$4m in funding to the University of Georgia for similar research.
There is now a consensus that the problem has become very serious. The bee population in commercially managed hives in the USA is estimated to have declined by 32 per cent in 2006 and 36 per cent in 2007. “Nature works in cycles but we’ve been constantly losing more and more bees”, said Ed Levi, secretary of the Apiary Inspectors of America. “We used to think that the problem would just go away but today I think it’s the canary in the mine.” The bees are mainly affected by two types of infestation: a tracheal mite and the varoa mite that attacks their intestines.While as yet no scientist has come up with an explanation, it is almost certain that the collapse is linked in one way or another to the rapid expansion in industrial farming. The natural diet of bees is pollen and honey – a mixture rich in enzymes, antioxidants and other nutrients. However, partly because of the decline in natural foraging areas, beekeepers in industrialised countries are increasingly supplementing this natural food with a mixture of artificial supplements, protein and glucose/fructose syrup. It is now believed that this diet may have weakened the bees’ immune system. Pesticides used on crops have also been affecting bees. For instance, the insecticide imidacloprid disrupts the bees’ homing behaviour. For more than a decade French beekeepers have been calling for a complete ban on the insecticide, saying that it is causing “mad bee disease”.
There are also other factors. Beekeeping in the USA has become a multi-billion-dollar industry. Many beekeepers make much more money renting out bees to pollinate food crops than they ever made selling honey. Juggernauts stacked with hundreds of hives travel huge distances, carrying the bees from one monoculture crop to another. The bees are stressed by the journey and have difficulty finding their bearings in alien ecosystems. Mortality rates are high. There is also growing concern that the bees may have been harmed by feeding on GM maize, which now accounts for more than half of the maize in US fields.
It is possible that CCD has multiple causes, with different factors combining to weaken the bees. As The Ecologist pointed out 18 months ago, “The single coherent thread that connects all the various theories of CCD is a massive failure of these creatures’ immune systems. It is entirely possible that CCD is the inevitable result of an overwhelming, ongoing assault on their immune systems.” If this is indeed the case, it will be a difficult problem to solve. It is likely that, at best, the scientific studies currently under way will come up with a technical fix of one kind or another. This will not solve the underlying problem.
Albert Einstein once famously declared: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.” As yet, bees are reported to be alive and well in areas of the world with little industrial farming. Yet there is good reason for all of us to feel extremely concerned.