Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Dying Bees

I've been doing a little bit of digging into the issue of mass die-offs of bees, mostly because it seems such a scare-story. There's little perspective given in most of the "green" news about this issue, so I decided to do a bit of reading.

So the problem appears to be that bees are dying in large numbers. Whole colonies die off in a matter of days. It's called "Colony Collapse Disorder", or CCD. There have been several documentaries produced about this, with alarming names like "Vanishing of the Bees". Most point the finger at pesticides. They are pretty scary and paint effective doomsday scenarios.

Of course this is quite alarming. I mean, bees are major pollinators, so this has the ability to really impact our food supply, not to mention the natural food web. So should I be concerned?

Here are some things I learned after a few minutes on the InterWebz, mostly Wikipedia and government-related science-y sites. Yes, I trust crowd-sourcing and state-backed research....

1. CCD or "colony collapse disorder" only happens with European honeybees. Hm. I didn't know this! Since these bees are not native to the Americas, native plants in the US and Canada do not need European honeybees to propagate. There are other, native, pollinators that will do the job. These include bumble and mason bees, which are not affected by CCD. In fact, if you remove the eurotrash, the natives take over - they tend to be more efficient, but are of course harder to round up and move around. Although some of our native bumblebees have been taking a hit also (cause unknown!), others are thriving.
2. the honeybee crash is really a problem for monocropping agriculture, where crops like berries of all kinds, melons, and cucumbers depend on mass pollination at specific times. The almond industry in California is the biggest "consumer" of European honeybee pollinators with 60% of the population being used there. Overall, about 30% of US crops rely on honeybee pollination.
3. The US Agricultural Research Service says that despite claims by the general and scientific media, a cause (or causes) has not been (definitively) identified by researchers. Many factors can contribute:
  •  limited genetic stock of bees and inbreeding
  •  virus and mite infestations, possibly exacerbated by stress (due to poor feeding, moving, weather...)
  •  overuse of specific types of pesticides (now placed on moratorium in the EU - which sets policy much more on a precautionary principle)...this is where the blame has been placed by the media, mostly.
4. the problem is likely exacerbated in the US because of the "bee rental" business, where hives are moved sometimes hundreds of miles, thereby spreading possible mite/virus infestations around, and also because the US doesn't use a native stock of bees (and hence has genetic diversity issues).
5. there is no scientific evidence that GM crops or electromagnetic radiation (ex. from cell phones - can bees use cell phones??) is causing excess bee deaths.
6. the rate of collapse (numbers of dead bees) has remained constant in the US, at about 30-35% for the last decade. While this is higher that in the years before, rate does not seem to be increasing. This rate has so far not resulted in any economic damage to either the bee industry, or to the pollination rates of crops. The beekeepers have been able to build up their colonies after collapse, and pass the increased cost of doing business on to the farmers, so we pay slightly more for our almonds.

So, are we all gonna die? Well, yes, of course, but not because of bee die-offs. Yeah, the research should continue (and it is), which is good. But doom is by no means imminent.

Should we limit the use of pesticides? I think so, certainly cosmetic pesticides are a crap idea.  That shit they sprayed on the trees in Oregon? Bad idea. Plant bee-friendly stuff in your yard instead: red clover, foxglove, bee balm.