Friday, 4 October 2013

To Bee or Not to Bee: A Consternation

Accustomed as I’ve become to expect “Time” magazine covers devoted to some currently popular Personage,  the current issue (August 19, 2013) puzzled me: a tiny honeybee buzzing it on a deathly black background, boldly asserting A world without BEES: The Price We’ll Pay IF We Don’t Figure Out What’s Killing the Honeybee.”

Bryan Walsh began his fascinating six page cover story with this lead: 
You can thank the Apis Mellifera, better known as the Western honeybee, for 1 in every 3 mouthfuls of food you’ll eat today.” (p. 32.) Citing California almonds and Maine blueberries, he lauds the “unsung, unpaid laborers of the American agricultural system “for pollinating more than $15 billions to U.S. farming wealth” each year! 

A Whole Food store in Rhode Island asserted that of its 453 items, 237 vanished without the honeybee. As Hannah Nordhaus asserts in her book “The Beekeeper’s Lament” those tiny beasts “are the glue that holds our agricultural system together”.

Alas, in 2006,  commercial beekeepers started getting disturbing experience. Open a hive and find it full of honeycomb, wax, even honey, but NO BEES! Ag specialist devised an apocalyptic name forthis experience CCD (colony collapse disorder!)  Seven years later, the mystery persists. One third of U.S. honeybee colonies last winter died or disappeared, an increase of 42 over the year before. (In normal winters it had been losses of 10-15%.) There were just enough to service the almond $4 billion harvest. (Worth twice as much as California’s wine grapes!) Jeff Pettis the research leader at the U.S Department of Agriculture’s Bee Research Laboratory reported: “The take-home message is that we are very close to the edge,”

What was bugging these bugs? Agricultural pesticides was the first suspect. Especially the new chemicals in neo-necotinoids . Other researchers stressed bee-killing pests like the Varroa destructor,a parasitic mite accidentally introduced into the U.S. in the 1980’s. Others suspected bacterial diseases. So many possibilities seemed to some greens to suggest a second “silent spring”, to allude to Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic “The Silent Spring”. Others feared that an agricultural apocalypse.

It helps to remember that the guilty bee was imported animal didn’t afflict America until the 17th century. Then and there were plenty of flowers and bushes for the bee to be contented. Not the overbuilt of contemporary America .It was such a newly mysterious a business that the commercial beekeepers dropped three quarters in the past 15 years. Walsh writes a fascinating narrative of one Jim Doan who started keeping bees when he was 5! And why and how he quit in 2006.

He explains how different methods  used in controlling 140 different crops complicate the problem of protecting the honey bees. Doan showed Walsh many pollen samples that shows how many chemicals are complicating this battle for bees. He believes the neo-nicotinois are the problem and is in a lawsuit with other beekeepers who want the Environmental Protection Agency to suspend a pair of pesticides in the neo-nicotinoid class.

Those chemicals are known as systematics, i.e. the seeds are soaked in them before they are planted. Traces of those chemicals are passed on to the mature plant, including the pollen and nectar the bee is pursuing. They also interfere with bees flying and navigation skills. But all these chemicals are ubiquitous, a fancy word for “everywhere”! Recently a researcher discovered that bees’ pollen was contaminated on average with 9 different pesticides and fungicides.

The “evil” Varroa first noticed in 1987 has a sharp two-pronged tongue that can pierce a bee’s exoskeleton and suck its hemolymph, that is the bee’s “blood”.  And the Varroa in effect has a dirty hypodermic needle, spreading other diseases as he sucks. The possible sources of infection are so multiple that some beekeepers blame CCd on what they amusingly dub PPB, as in “piss-poor” beekeeping. Still since 2006,  10 million beehives have been lost ($2 billions worth!) If we loose the honeybee asset, don’t panic: “The backbone of the world’s diet, grains like corn,wheat and rice—is self-pollinating.”( p.36.)

Heh, things could be worse In June a Oregon landscaping team sprayed insecticide on trees killing 50,000 wild bumble bees. Indeed as many as 100,000 animal species die off each year! (No fanfare or funerals!)
This,” Walsh concludes,”is what happens when one species—that would be us—becomes so widespread that it crowds out almost and so dominant that it crowds out almost everything else” (p.37).

By all means don’t slide by the two pages of visual explanations (pp.34-35). For an underscienced humanist like me, it was a revelation! And the many ways our beekeepers are trying to protect their heritage are inspiring. A successful industrial civilization must remain a thoughtful one. Hail the “Time” cover that caught my eye.

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