Flimsy Sanity: Bees

Flimsy Sanity

In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule. - Friedrich Nietzsche

Monday, May 19, 2008


Give bees a chance by Pat Thomas.
..Bees’ role in the natural order of our world is crucial, and their importance as pollinators, both for agriculture and for wild plants, can’t be underestimated. Nor can it be quantified in monetary terms. Bees are what is known as a “keystone species”, ensuring the continued reproduction and survival not only of plants but of other organisms that depend on those plants for survival. Once a keystone species disappears, other species begin to disappear too - thus Albert Einstein’s apocalyptic and, these days, oft-quote view: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

This vision may be coming true. Our bees are dying - in record numbers. The recent disappearance of catastrophic numbers of bees from their colonies, in the US, especially but also in Europe, has been dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The most striking symptom of CCD is that the bees appear to die away from the hive. One day they fly away and never return. Those few that a left behind, say scientists, are ill indeed. Virtually every known bee virus can be found in their bodies; some carrying five or six viruses, as well as several gungal infections, at the same time. The other worrying factor is the way other bees and insects avoid these abandoned nests. In nature, nothing is wasted and an abandoned hive would normally be taken over by other creatures opportunisticaly looking for food and shelter. But hives suffering from CCD remain empty, suggesting that there may be something toxic in the colony itself.

…As the number of crops we grow increases, the need for pollinators grow too, and these days beekeepers can make more money renting out bees to pollinate food crops than they have ever been able to make selling homemade honey. Migratory pollination is a multibillion-dollar industry. But transporting bees huge distances in giant 18-wheel juggernauts with the hives stacked on top of each other also stresses the insects out. Higher levels of stress in turn make them more vulnerable to disease. Studies show CCD is most prevailent in transported bees, with losses of up to 90% within the colonies. By transporting bees across great distances, beekeepers are also transporting mites and any other parasites, viruses, bacteria and fungi to places they might not otherwise have spread. Industrial-sezed colonies may have greater market value, but they bring the same problems to bees that industrial poultry farmers have visited on chickens and turkeys: the easy spread of disease.

…..In addition, the boxy structure of modern commercial hives - which makes it easier to squeeze several colonies into a small space - and configuration of bees yards have largely been designed for the convenience of human beekeepers an not necessarily with the health and natural biology of the bees in mind. The natural diet of a bee is pollen and honey - a mixture rich in enzymes, anti-oxidants and other health-supporting nutrients. But to beef their bees up for the heavy work of pollination, commercial beekeepers feed them on the bee equivalent of protein bars and lucozade - a mixture of artificial supplements, protein and glucose/fructose syrup. These sticky mixtures are freighted around the country in tankers to wherever the colonies happen to be. This is expensive and occasionally it proes cheaper to kill off whole colonies rather than feed them over the winter. The artificial diets are in part response to the decline of the bees’ natural foraging areas. Fewer plants means less natural food for the bees. But taking any living creature off its natural diet and force-feeding it junk food will inevitably result in poor immunity. Bees in particular have a much less adaptive immune system than we do, so if a bee becomes infected by a virus, its body cnt respond by making specific antibodies.

In a normal colony, the queen can live and produce eggs for several years. In commercial beekeeping, breeding better queens is a profitable business and queens are regularly killed and replaced - as often as every 6 months. The queen may be subjected to the stress of having her wings clipped to identify her and also limit “swarming” - when bees leave one colony with a new queen and form another elsewhere (the natural way for bees to ensure their survival and genetic diversity). To ensure that colonies express the genetic qualities that beekeepers value, however, some virgin queens are artificially inseminated with sperm from crushed males. This practise, while not universal, is gaining popularity as it becomes more difficult for honeybees to survive naturally.

Bee population have been affected by 2 types of mite infestations in recent years: a tracheal mite and the varroa mite that attacks the intestines. ….In a healthy colony, varroacould to some degree be seen as useful, helping to cull the weaker members. But in an already-weakened artificial colonies we treat the infestation with insecticides such as coumaphos, a dangerous organophosphate to which the mites rapily develop resistance. This resistance ca be passed on from generation to generation, and some evidence suggests resistant mites actually trive with repeated exposure. Likewise, the pesticide fluvainate creates resistance in the mite and disrupts the bees’ homing behaviour and ability to navigate. A bee that cnt fin its way back home eventually dies. Pesticides used on food crops and other crops can affect bees, even at sub-lethal doses. Exposure can produce a kind of pesticide intoxication that makes the bees appear “drunk” and disrupts navigation, feeding behaviour, memory, learning and egg-laying. Fipronil, for example,impairs the olfactory memory process. which honeybees use to find pollen and nectar. Spinosad can make bumblebees slower foragers even at low doses. The insecticide imidacloprid can cause bees to forget where their hives are located. …Genetically modified (GM) plants account for 40% of U.S cornfields. ..The bacterial toxin in the corn appeared to alter the surface of the bees’ intestines, weakening it enough to allow the parasites to gain entry.

As more stories of CCD become more prominent, other theories emerge. Mobile phones and overhead power lines have been blamed for interfering with the bees’ homing radar and preventing them from getting back to their colonies. It is not clear how sound this theory is. Better known is the fact that high background levels of electromagnetic radiation can suppress immune response and disrupt the nervous system in a variety of living creatures. It is unlikely that bees are the exception to that rule.

Having been co-opted into industrial farming, commercial bees have become just another type of farming machinery. But the machinery is breaking down. Ironically, the giant farms that destroy natural habitats and use large quantities of pesticides are the ones that need the bees the most, and are at the same time important contributors to their decline.

Bees are sensitive, social social creatures that have achieved a high degree of harmony and productivity in their colonies. Their social structure is both dynaic and ordered. They are intelligent, and become more so with age. They learn and remember; they can use visual orientation to estimate distances from a nectar source while in flight. They construct colonies that are warm in the winter and cool in the summer. They also suffer from occupational diseases. just like we do. …

..Because of our close proximity to bees and our deep reliance on them, any problems in our society - in the way we think and act, in our broader relationship with nature - will also affect theirs. The collapse of the bee population isnt a scientific riddle to be solved with more and better science and technology.

In fact, it could be a frightening vision of our own future.


  • At 5:41 PM, Anonymous R J Adams said…

    An interesting essay.

  • At 7:50 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Just want to say what a great blog you got here!
    I've been around for quite a lot of time, but finally decided to show my appreciation of your work!

    Thumbs up, and keep it going!

    Christian, iwspo.net


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