A while ago there were stories making all the major news outlets about the disappearance of domestic honey bees. They dubbed it “Colony Collapse Disorder.” Around 2006, beekeepers started reporting losing anywhere from 30% to 90% of their hives to CCD. The mystery was why all the worker bees in a hive would vanish, leaving behind a healthy queen, plenty of food and a few nurse bees caring for immature brood.
When I first wrote about this in 2009, nearly 50% of domestic bee hives were disappearing each year, and no one knew why. Was it a pest, or pesticides? Had imported bees brought a new disease? But most of those problems would result in a pile of dead bees around the bottom of the hive. Some were suggesting that cell phones signals were causing bees to lose their way home.
The problem is far from solved. According to the EPA, 42% of hives were lost last year to CCD. As with global warming, there are loud voices and finger-pointing everywhere.
And now comes news that wild bees are disappearing.
A study completed this month by the University of Vermont indicated that wild bee populations diminished 23% from 2008 to 2013. Like me, your reaction to this might be, ‘Well Duhhh…’ But no, one doesn’t necessarily follow the other. The pressure on domestic bees is known to be from:
- Pesticide-treated crops; wild bees eat some of those, but they have choices domestic bees don’t.
- Poor nutrition; if you lived in a hive smack in the middle of five square miles of almond trees, you would not simply get tired of eating almond pollen. Eating nothing but almond pollen, and Genetically Modified pollen at that, would seriously mess with your immune system. Wild bees generally are able to vary their menu.
- Pests; The most dangerous attacker of bees is the varroa mite. Poisons aimed at mites in hives have only served to make the mites stronger. (If you’re wondering why that sounds familiar, think antibiotics…) While wild bees also have to deal with mites, they have adapted better defenses against them.
The pressures on wild bees include:
- Loss of habitat. What you and I might call ‘weeds’ bees call ‘lunch.’ In 11 key states where bee loss has been greatest, the amount of grassland converted to cornfields spiked 200% in five years. Blame GMO corn, Round-Up weed killer, and greed.
- Herbicides. They don’t kill bees directly. But the big chemical companies have convinced farmers that all weeds are bad – no doubt to sell them more weed killer – so farmers are killing off bee food for no good reason, even when their fields aren’t planted, in hopes of getting a better paying crop. Golf courses and power line rights-of-way also use herbicides on areas they used to leave to the bees.
- Climate change. While the range of most plants is shifting north at a rate of about 5 miles per year, the range of wild bees isn’t shifting, it’s compressing. The southern edge is moving north, but the northern limit is staying the same.
Bees were being predicted to be extinct in the US by 2035 even before CCD came along, just from loss of habitat, pesticides, and parasites. Thanks to CCD, it could happen even sooner. As wild bees disappear, more domestic bees will be needed. And they just aren’t there. In some places in China, humans with feather dusters have to go out and pollinate pear blossoms. Is that what we have to look forward to?
Used to be, a beekeeper would drop off his hives at an almond orchard or strawberry patch for free… his primary source of income was honey, with perhaps a sideline in bee pollen, bees wax and royal jelly. However, when truck farming began in earnest in the fifties, beekeeping became commercial apiculture. In 1960, beekeepers were charging $3 per hive per season. By 2004, that figure had inflated to $60. Since then, as bees have disappeared and demand for bees has risen, the rental figure now can be as much as $180 per hive, even higher in some places, with commercial beekeepers planning their movements around when the blossoms will appear where, and resulting in even more stressed-out bees being trucked from the almond orchards of California to the blueberry bushes of Maine.
In 2006, American beekeepers had to import bees for the first time in 80 years. A farmer now pays more for pollination than he does for fertilizer, water, or labor. How much of that cost can he pass on to consumers before pricing himself out of business? Are you willing to pay $25 a pound for almonds?
Why should you care? Fully one out of three bites you stick in your mouth will disappear when the bees go. In addition to the cost of your food spiraling up, the nutrition of your meals will continue spiraling down. This morning, for example, I had a bowl of quinoa with cherries, walnuts, and yogurt for breakfast. The cherries are supposed to prevent gout, walnuts are good for my brain, and the yogurt – frankly, I don’t remember what yogurt is supposed to be good for, but it tastes nasty, so it must be good for something. If bees disappear, I’ll have to eat my yogurt without quinoa, cherries or walnuts – or blueberries, or almonds, or… So, in addition to paying more for groceries our health will deteriorate, raising the cost of healthcare. And some of the medicines with which the doctor would normally treat you won’t be available, either, because they come from plants that… you know…
One senator, during discussion of a bill to hand a puny $4 million to research of CCD, said: ‘If 1 of every 3 cows in this country was dropping dead, you can bet the Department of Agriculture would be moving heaven and earth to find a cure.’ There’s some truth to that. We don’t see bees, generally, don’t think about them much except as a nuisance at a picnic. But we cannot continue our present lifestyle without them.
What can you do in the mean time? Morgan Freeman recently turned his 124 acre farm in Mississippi into a ‘bee refuge,’ planting bee-friendly flowering plants, and putting out sugar water in the off season. You don’t have to go to that extreme. Here are a few simple things you can do:
- Plant stuff that blooms. That could be flowers, vines, herbs, or fruit. Bees are particularly attracted to lavender, blue, white and yellow blossoms.
- Don’t use bug spray or weed killer – ever.
- In some places, like here in Arizona, bees may struggle to find enough water. Put out a bowl with a rough surface and a tapered side so bees can ease down to the water to sip some without falling in. Once bees start to find it, don’t move it, even a foot.
Can science fix this problem before it’s too late? Well, they have maybe a dozen years. How long have we been waiting on a cure for cancer? Two thousand years ago, Revelation 11:18 foretold that man would try to ruin the earth. Looks like he’s doing a pretty good job of it.
Bill Underwood is the author of the novels The Minotaur Medallion and Resurrection Day. Find him on Facebook.