Bees are in crisis, experts aren’t sure exactly how to save them, and without them our food supply will shrink by a lot. Not good.
The crisis is called Colony Collapse Disorder. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency describes it:
During the winter of 2006-2007, some beekeepers began to report unusually high losses of 30-90 percent of their hives. As many as 50 percent of all affected colonies demonstrated symptoms inconsistent with any known causes of honeybee death: sudden loss of a colony’s worker bee population with very few dead bees found near the colony. The queen and brood (young) remained, and the colonies had relatively abundant honey and pollen reserves. But hives cannot sustain themselves without worker bees and would eventually die. This combination of events resulting in the loss of a bee colony has been called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
40 to 50 percent of commercial beekeepers’ hives have succumbed to CCD.
This isn’t bad news only for bees and the people who make money off of them. It is also bad news for any humans who eat food. By that I mean “cashews, beets, broccoli, cabbage, brussels sprouts, chestnuts, watermelons, cucumber, fennel, strawberries, macadamia, mangoes, apricots, almonds,” and dozens of others. Without bees to pollinate plants, some crops will be in mighty short supply. Even if you don’t give a hoot about bumblebees (or brussels sprouts), you have a very strong incentive to care about this disorder.
Theories about the cause of CCD include:
The theory that makes the most sense to me is less speculative. When beekeepers steal bees’ honey so you can eat it, they are taking away the insects’ food. They replace it with high-fructose corn syrup, leaving the bees malnourished and weakening their immune systems.
It would be like removing all fruits and vegetables from your diet and replacing them with Pez. I know, you’re thinking that you don’t eat enough produce as it is and you’re fine. Me too. But we’re not fine, we’re just falling apart more slowly than bees do.
Researchers have identified some specific nutrients that bees need, get from honey, and don’t get from corn syrup:
When honeybees collect nectar from flowers, they also gather pollen and a substance called propolis, which they use to make waxy honeycombs. The pollen and propolis are loaded with three types of compounds that University of Illinois entomologists discovered can help the bees detoxify their cells and protect themselves from pesticides and microbes.
Those compounds are p-coumaric acid, and two others found in the sap of poplars.
Pesticides (including some applied inside the hive to keep mites out) and metal pollution may very well play a role in CCD, but they would not wreak the same havoc if bees were healthier. “If you’re feeding them high-fructose corn syrup, then pathogens may be more dangerous and pesticides can be more toxic,” according to the lead author of the study identifying high-fructose corn syrup as the cause of CCD.
I think there is a law that scientists can’t publish a study without warning that (1) more research is needed; (2) the study found correlation, not causation; or (3) their academic conclusions won’t be available as practical, real-world solutions for many years. These researchers went with number three: “there’s a big gap between a scientific finding and practical application,” the lead author told the Los Angeles Times.
The European Union, in its typically upstart style, decided to do some applying anyway, but unfortunately it chose to address only one part of the problem: pesticides. Last month it restricted the use of three pesticides on crops bees rely on for nectar. The restrictions expire in two years.
Predictably, scientists wailed that there is too little evidence to take action. But what is the harm in restricting some pesticides temporarily? If they call it a research experiment maybe everyone will feel better — except for the pesticide manufacturers, which are pitching fits at the EU.
In the meantime, let’s all follow the EU’s devil-may-care brashness by applying scientific findings right now. Stop eating honey. Bees cook it up for themselves, not for you. What they make for you is all those other yummy foods listed above. So leave them the honey and have some strawberries.
Photo credit: iStockphoto
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