Saturday, March 27, 2010

Honeybees are still dying

Three years ago, honeybees started disappearing in the United States and other countries. Hives that had been thriving were suddenly found to be devoid of bees. The epidemic of catastrophic bee losses is called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). This last winter was the worst yet for beekeepers. From the San Francisco Chronicle—

In normal times, David Hackenberg would begin trucking his 20 million honeybees from the almond orchards of California to the orange groves of Florida this week.

Instead, after a month working the almond blossoms on the West Coast, his exhausted pollinators will get some rest and relaxation in the Georgia woods before the East Coast apple blossoms summon them to work once more next month.

These are not normal times for bees, or for commercial beekeepers, so Hackenberg's pollinators will skip the citrus gig to reduce their exposure to pesticides and get some rest. "Everybody is seeing (bee) losses this winter," said Hackenberg, of Lewisburg, Pa. "This was probably the worst year ever."

More than three years after beekeepers starting seeing the sudden disappearance of hive populations, scientists have yet to find the cause — let alone the fix — for a condition called colony collapse disorder (CCD). Meanwhile, the commercial beekeeping industry is struggling to provide pollination services to the nations' farmers. One-third of food crops rely on insect pollination.

Honeybees are still dying

I first wrote about this alarming situation in The Sixth Extinction.

Probably A. mellifera [the common honeybee] will not become extinct, at least in the foreseeable future, but that’s actually begging the question, isn’t it? If there were a single, remediable cause of the honeybee die-off, the question of possible extinction would lose much of its force. We need to know why honeybees are dying.

[We] ruled out many potential causes for CCD and found many possible contributing factors. But no single culprit has been identified.Bees suffering from CCD tend to be infested with multiple pathogens, including a newly discovered virus, but these infections seem secondary or opportunistic much the way pneumonia kills a patient with AIDS. The picture now emerging is of a complex condition that can be triggered by different combinations of causes. There may be no easy remedy to CCD. It may require taking better care of the environment and making long-term changes to our beekeeping and agricultural practices.

Honeybees are dying of everything, just like AIDS sufferers with weakened immune systems. This points to environmental stress as the primary cause of the ongoing demise of A. mellifera. If we continue to degrade the environment, the stresses on bees will increase. This will further weaken the bees, which will result in more die-offs, which will increase the probability of extinction over time.

Barring extinction, honeybee population declines could easily be severe enough to preclude industrial scale pollination for the various fruits and nuts we eat.

So far it has been impossible to pinpoint a single cause for CCD, which strengthens the hypothesis that general environmental stress has weakened the immune system of A. mellifera. An estimated one-third of American agricultural products depend on honeybee pollination. We are getting closer to the point where the number of bees left is inadequate to service this huge industry. We are now importing bees from Australia to make up the shortfall (see the video below).

After three years of research, scientists think the cause is not a single factor but a cocktail of maladies that together weaken and sicken the bees. "We know CCD bees get all the pathogens causing the symptoms; it doesn't leave answered what's the underlying cause," said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, Pennsylvania's acting state apiarist.

Environmental stress, including pesticides and the strain of being trucked across time zones and climates, may also be a factor. Poor nutrition may also contribute, a diet of corn syrup or the nutritionally inferior nectar or pollen of crops such as cranberry, cucumbers or melons.

"We have been losing bees and beekeepers in this country for 60 years, and now we are at the point where almost half the colonies in the country are needed to pollinate almonds in California," van Engelsdorp said. "We are close to the margin" of a viable ratio of pollinators to crops, he said. "It's amazing to me how close we are to that line."

"Something is going wrong here," Hackenberg said.

Something is going wrong here. No kidding. Not all of our problems are financial or political, though you wouldn't know that from listening to the media. This video from Silence of the Bees (Nature, PBS) explains the potentially catastrophic problems we face as pollinators die off.

Since this 2007 report, things have only gotten worse for the bees. Now that our self-congratulatory Congressmen are full of themselves—at least the Democrats are—because they actually managed to do something, let's see them "fix" this problem.

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