Bee Afraid

Honeybees are in deep trouble:

Almost a third of managed U.S. honey bees died last winter, according to a new survey of commercial and home beekeepers. That’s more than triple the losses of 5 to 10 percent that used to be normal for beekeepers before 2005 — and double the 15 percent that beekeepers say is acceptable for their businesses to continue unharmed. The finding marks a disturbing trend among honey bees: each winter since 2006, the Bee Informed Partnership has documented losses of 21.9 to 36 percent of U.S. hives. … The large-scale die offs — attributed in part to a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder — have gained widespread attention in the recent months. That’s partly because if the deaths continue, they could have a major impact on the nation’s food system. … The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 71 percent of the world’s most widely-consumed crops are pollinated by bees — and these crops are worth at least $207 billion. But this year, bee losses caused farmers to come extremely close to a pollination crisis, leading to warnings about impending food insecurity.

Alan Boyle explains “Colony Collapse Disorder”:

The malady is almost certainly due to combination of factors — including the Varroa mite, a single-celled parasite known as Nosema, several varieties of viruses, and pesticides. Researchers point to one particular class of pesticides, known as neonicotinoids, as a prime suspect.

Neonicotinoid-based pesticides are commonly applied as a coating on corn seeds, but the chemicals can persist in the environment. Although they have low toxicity for mammals, they’ve been found to have a significant neurotoxic effect on insects, including bees. Several European countries have banned neonicotinoids, the European Union has been looking at a wider ban, and the Environmental Protection Agency is considering new limitations as well.

Dr. Doug Yanega cautions that we still don’t fully understand the causes of Colony Collapse Disorder, examples of which date back as far as the late 1800s:

[I]n both 2007 and 2009 another paper pointed out that there were at least 18 historical episodes of similar large-scale losses of honey bees dating back to 1869, at least several of which had symptoms similar enough that they cannot be ruled out as being the exact same ailment. Yet, how often have you seen any of the scientists and journalists and beekeepers acknowledging that any theories about the cause of CCD need to accommodate the evidence for similar bee crashes that pre-date neonicotinoid pesticides, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), migratory beekeeping, cell phones, genetically modified crops, or any of the other human-made “causes” that have been run up the proverbial flagpole? …

A reasonable course of action, to my mind, is acknowledging that we aren’t likely to find that any man-made factors are the true cause of CCD, devoting energy to looking for contagious pathogenic agents, and taking a closer look at genetic diversity in honey bees themselves (e.g., are there strains that are resistant to CCD?), while at the same time working towards reducing the exposure and impacts of man-made factors that are capable of harming bees (but without BLAMING them in the process, or overreacting).