Tuesday, May 22, 2007
'Let Them Eat Cake': The Bee Crisis, Part 1
Honeybees and the honey industry are important parts of the world's agricultural process. Many of our fruits, vegetables, nuts, and even livestock crops such as alfalfa are heavily dependent on honeybees to provide pollination. If honeybees continue their rapid decline in numbers, we may see a day when common foodstuffs such as almonds, apples, and potatoes are so expensive and rare that only the rich can afford to enjoy them.
Will Americans and Europeans be able to survive on food from plants that use the wind for pollination? Is the Western world ready to eat wheat, rice and corn exclusively? Will the masses be forced to "eat cake" as the saying goes? Could the situation really become this dire on our watch?
A couple of weeks ago I was watching the HBO political show "Real Time" with Bill Maher. At the end of the episode, Bill discussed some disturbing issues and ended the show with a quote he attributed to Einstein: "If the bees disappeared off the face of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left."
The quote cited is not a documented Einstein quote. In fact, its author is unknown. Yet, regardless of the source, it is a powerful, thought provoking statement.
Being a bee lover and avid organic gardener, I decided to take a much closer look at what was happening with the honeybees. So, I have decided to list as much of what is going on with the worldwide honeybee population, honeybee research, and how this may or may not affect each and every one of us and our daily diet.
What Is CCD?
Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is the newest affliction to strike the worldwide honeybee population. To date it has been observed in 27 U.S. states, Canada, Brazil, Europe, and possibly Taiwan. CCD is the name given to a specific set of characteristics observed in honeybee colonies that have failed.
These characteristics include the absence of dead bees within or around the collapsed hive, a hive that has sufficient stores of honey, developing larvae in combs, and a delayed invasion of honey raiding pests.
In hives that have recently collapsed, the queen and young bees are still present and alive but are struggling to survive. The events that lead up to the collapse occur very quickly and a hive can go from healthy to collapsed in a week with no apparent warning.
The phenomena that led up to naming this affliction CCD was first observed in November and has quickly spread. However, these symptoms have been documented at different times as different problems since 1896.
In the past, the phenomena was referred to with names that included months or seasons such as "fall dwindle disease," "May disease," and a variety of other names. All of these have now been regrouped and are now simply called CCD.
Never before, have these problems been seen over such a large geographic range, nor have they ever been as prevalent.
As far as how severe the problem is, there is no distinct answer available. Some estimates list the number of bee deaths worldwide in the billions (one billion bees would be approximately 15,000 hives).
It has been suggested that bee losses on the west coast of the United States at 60 percent and 70 percent on the east coast. In Pennsylvania, bee operations that are experiencing CCD have lost anywhere from 55 percent to 100 percent of their hives. Whatever the exact number, this bee die off has become extremely significant.
The Honeybee Industry
To understand why any problem facing honeybee health becomes a worldwide issue very quickly, one needs to know how the honey industry works. Much like human populations, bee populations kept by large honey producing operations become exposed to each other very quickly for a variety of reasons.
Large honey producers will travel with their hives and move to different locations based on which crops are coming into season. This exposes the bees to a much larger geographic range than they would ever meet in the wild.
Also, this practice puts bees in contact with other honeybees that have traveled from other parts of the country. Any new virus or parasite that affects honeybees will spread quickly across a country; even a country as large as the United States.
Also, many northern beekeeping operations in the United States over-winter their bees in warmer climates. For example, the beekeeper who first reported CCD was from Pennsylvania but was keeping his 2,900 hives in Florida for the winter when the hives began to fail.
Another contributor to the spreading of viruses and parasites is the buying and selling of new beehives. Even during a "normal" year, 17 percent of all hives will perish usually during the winter. Eventually all bee hives will succumb to some ailment over time. Because large honey producers usually support hundreds to thousands of hives, they are regularly replacing the hives that die off.
Some of these replacement hives are imported from other countries where bee populations are in peak season. Others are purchased from a few breeders that raise bees solely for the purpose of replenishing hive losses. So, any affliction striking honeybees becomes a worldwide issue very quickly. Usually, before researchers can identify the culprit.
So What Could Be Causing CCD?
This is the million-dollar question that has researchers scratching their heads at the moment; the possible suspects are many.
Recently, a study done at Landau University in Germany showed that cell phones had a negative affect on honeybee hives. Researchers placed cell phones in and near active hives and the bees lost their desire to return to the hive. These results have also been documented in bees that live near power lines.
There is always the possibility that mankind's increasing reliance on genetically modified crops will end up have a negative effect on species that are thought to be unaffected. Most genetically modified crops include triggers that tell the plant to produce toxins and "pesticides" that are contained in the plant itself. If these toxins do appear in the pollen of the modified crop, the bees would be bringing it back into the hive and spreading it within the hive. If found in the nectar of the plant, these toxins could be killing the bee as it feeds and forages, before it returns to the hive.
Many of our newer "hi-tech" pesticides could also be the source of the recent problems. The insecticide imidacloprid has been studied as a possible bee killer in Europe. Imidacloprid operates in much the same way as genetically modified plants. The toxin is used in the soil and enters the plant's tissues (including the pollen and nectar) as it grows.
Here it stays until the plant is eaten by the target pests. What is intriguing about this bug killer is that studies have shown that it affects another social insect, the termite, with many of the same symptoms seen with CCD in bees.
The bees could also be becoming victims to a new unknown parasite. Parasites have long been the biggest threat to honeybee survival. The Varroa mite, a mite that was once restricted to Asian bees where it is not considered a major threat, has been a major killer of honeybee populations since it started infesting American and European honeybee hives in the 1970s and 1980s. A new, unrecognized parasite would quickly become a major problem for honeybee populations already threatened by Varroa mites.
Like all social situations, beehives are constantly under attack from a variety of viruses, bacteria, and fungi. Many of these are well known and are controlled with chemicals by most major honey producers. The possibility always exists that a new lethal viral disease, deadly bacterial strain, or aggressive fungi has emerged and is now threatening bee populations. Also, the chemicals used to control fungi and virus, along with chemicals used to control the Varroa mite could, in combination, be impacting the health of the bees themselves.
Another problem working against the bees is a reduced gene pool within the honeybee industry. For years, beehives have been bought and sold among a dwindling number of beekeepers worldwide. Replacement queens and hives are sold by a limited number of breeders devoted to producing replacement broods. Bees are bred as specialists with the focus on honey production. Rarely are wild strains introduced into this mix and the gene pool continues to shrink as bigger and better producing bees are created. Some organic beekeepers blame this shrunken gene pool for many of the problems seen with today's honeybee populations.
This shrinking gene pool comes from a species that may not have the strongest genes to begin with. Recent scientific research has opened the door to the possibility that the honeybee, despite existing for 35 million years, is predisposed to extinction. In 2006, the honeybee became the third insect to have its genome mapped, following the mosquito and the fruit fly. What was discovered is that the honeybee has significantly fewer genes than the fruit fly dedicated to fighting off toxins. Insecticides, herbicides, constant chemical treatments, cell phones, natural parasites and viruses may all add up and could be pushing the honeybee past the breaking point.
With all of these problems facing the world's honeybee populations, it is no wonder that one cause has not yet been isolated. In fact, testimony given to the United States House of Representatives recently by the Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group and the National Academy of Sciences suggested that "combination of stressors" maybe the cause of the recent CCD epidemic.
What Is the Present Prognosis?
At present there are many scattered groups working on determining the cause of CCD. Recently some of these scientific groups went before the U.S. Congress seeking financial support to increase research. The lack of money is a major factor that is limiting research into the causes of CCD. Considering that thousands of hives have perished in the United States alone, funding needs to be found to pay for the bevy of tests that need to be done on each of these hives to try and determine the source of the collapse.
Earlier this week, the Working Group released an update on their findings. So far, they have only positively eliminated Varroa mites from the list of possible causes. The best news in this report is the increased number of research groups that are now focusing attention on the recent situation with honeybees.
The present CCD data is based almost entirely on volunteer surveys that are filled out by beekeepers that are experiencing or have experienced hive losses. To properly determine what actually happened, trained researchers need to be sent to investigate the problems.
The first question that needs to be answered is how many of the reported hive losses to CCD are actually due to CCD or may be due to some other already identifiable cause. Very possibly, the recent media attention on CCD could be influencing survey results. Without on-site confirmation, the true scope of the problem cannot be determined.
Not only do the bees themselves need to be examined, but, the surrounding area and environmental factors around the hives need to be looked at by researchers. Both the failed beehives and any healthy hives surviving nearby need to be studied thoroughly. Funding must be in place to support this on-site research and an on-going permanent structure for studying bee populations needs to be established.
Presently, in the United States, the Department of Agriculture operates only four honeybee research stations. A surprisingly small number, considering that the Department recently claimed that honeybee pollination adds over $14 billion to the value of U.S. crops. The leading authority on honeybees is located at the Penn State University. The University was named to head research conducted in the fight against CCD and is home to the Colony Collapse Working Group. Unlike many other large agricultural organizations in the United States, the National Honey Board was only able to pledge $13,000 to the Working Group in January to fund research. Certainly, $13,000 will not go very far, if field research is to be done.
Based on the information that the Working Group gave to Congress in late March, they have not isolated any single target item to focus research on. They did list a few possible causes -- all of which I listed above. The Working Group did not consider genetically modified crops or cell phones as possible problems in their report to Congress. They did specifically name two possible suspects by name, fungi that were found growing in colonies that have collapsed. These fungi are much like Aspergillus and Mucor, two fungi that were considered lethal to bees in the 1930s but have not been a threat since.
The most recent research on CCD causes came out of the University of California, San Francisco in late April. At UCSF, DNA analysis conducted by biochemist Joe DeRisi, well known for identifying the SARS virus, and Dr. Don Ganem identified the DNA of two pathogens in honeybees from hives that had recently perished. One of these, a parasite called Nosema ceranae, is associated with the deaths of Asian honeybees. This parasite has recently been able to change species and may now be attacking American and European honeybee stocks.
The lab also identified the DNA of a virus of the genus Iflavirus. This virus has been known to cause stress to honeybees and may have mutated to become even more lethal. Future studies on a larger demographic of samples will be needed to determine if these two ailments are common to all failing hives.
All of this leads to the fact that everyone seems to be "stumped" by CCD and the recent worldwide honeybee losses. Continued losses on the magnitude seen over the last 6 months in the United States will directly impact the production of many fruits, vegetables, alfalfa, and other crops. Any even slight impact on these crops will have a direct impact on their availability and cost. The cost of honey had already risen 10% in 2006 before CCD began showing up. We can expect a much larger price increase for honey this year.
Rising prices, limited supplies, and heightened media attention are the early results of this epidemic, but future problems may turn out to be much more severe and pronounced.
In part 2, I will look forward at what could happen. I will cover what we should expect from CCD research, what other problems are associated with crop pollination, and what honeybee extinction may mean for mankind. Would mankind really have just four years left?
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