Nowadays when I see bees in my garden, I pay close attention. I have noticed at least four different types. They buzz purposely—so focused on the periwinkle blue flowers of my rosemary hedge. I crouch down to examine their fuzzy bodies and the gorgeous floral interiors that are the center of their apian attention. The wondrous dance of bees and flowers has been evolving for millions of years, but in the past few, it has it become frighteningly tenuous. Since Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) was first recognized in the U.S. in 2006, news about the plight of honeybees and native bees has only worsened around the world. Last year alone, an estimated 30 billion bees died. Bees pollinate over 80 percent of all food crops and are responsible for about one-third the calories we eat, and though we rarely remember this fact, we are wholly dependent on the busy little buzzers. Although a specific cause for CCD has yet to be been nailed down, several building factors have likely contributed. Pesticides could be causing the immuno-suppression of bees, or a combination of factors, such as blood-sucking varroa mites, diseases, and nutritional stress, might all interact to weaken bee colonies to the point of collapse. What’s clear is that all likely contributing factors are linked to our industrial approach to pollination:
- We’ve become too dependent on a single bee species to pollinate our crops, which makes our agriculture extremely vulnerable to problems caused by pathogens, especially in the face of environmental stresses.
- We have used pesticides that target not only pests but also pollinators, causing both honeybees and native bees to decline in local environments. U.S. researchers have found residues of 46 different pesticides in the wax, pollen, and bodies of bees.
- Global exchange of bees has allowed the spread of pathogens. Although the Honey Bee Act of 1922 long prohibited importation of hives to prevent the spread of disease, varroa mites likely hitchhiked in with smuggled queen bees, and at least one virus associated with CCD is likely to have entered the U.S. in 2005, when Congress approved an exemption in response to pressure from almond growers, who were in desperate need of pollination by more commercial hives.
- Just last week, the Seattle PI reported massive fraud in honey, with tons of honey from China flooding into the U.S. contaminated with illegal antibiotics—unapproved for food in the U.S.—but used widely in China to cope with prevalent hive diseases. In most organisms, indiscriminate antibiotic use increases the likelihood of antibiotic-resistant diseases.
- Rather than enhance habitat to keep bees well nourished with floral nectars, beekeepers have increasingly used corn syrup as a supplemental feed, leading some researchers to question the nutritional adequacy of bees’ modern diets and whether that might play a contributing role in vulnerability to disease.