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Whither Apis mellifera?

Whither Apis mellifera?

There are certain pursuits which, if not wholly poetic and true, do at least suggest a nobler and finer relation to nature than we know. The keeping of bees, for instance. – Henry David Thoreau

Jennifer Scarlott writes about the phenomenon called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) that is causing unprecedented mortality of honeybees in the United States. Scientists darkly suggest that if bees vanish, agriculture could be devastated. The U.S. experience contains lessons for us here in India, where we often use dangerous pesticides in unsafe quantities. In addition, we are wiping out natural ecosystems faster than ever before. A national study on the status of bees is an urgent priority for India, but has not been budgeted either by the Ministry of Agriculture, or by the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

Common honeybees – or rather the lack of them – has hit the front pages across North America and Europe. In less than a year, the U.S. has lost more than a quarter of its 2.4 million bee colonies, amounting to tens of billions of bees. Populations of Apis mellifera, also known as the Western or European honeybee, and other bee species are in trouble in Canada and nine European countries as well. U. K. scientists report that more than half their native bumblebee species are extinct or facing extinction in the next few decades, while Manfred Hederer of the German Beekeepers’ Association reports a 25 per cent drop in German bee populations and up to 80 per cent decline in some areas.

All social bees build colonial nests of wax secreted by the worker bees, and store honey. The precious liquid is made up of a complex mix of nectar and sweet deposits gathered from plants, and stored in hives that are densely-packed complexes of hexagonal cells, in which the brood is also housed. Honey is hydroscopic and has the ability to literally pull the water out of the bodies of microbes that might otherwise spoil it. Photo: Gertrud and Helmut Denzau.

Honeybees are not incidental curiosities on the agricultural scene – their pollinating services are essential to crop quality and yield. Why is Apis mellifera dying in vast numbers? Biologists are working on a number of theories – disease, parasites, genetically-modified crops, climate change, pesticides, habitat destruction, a combination of some or all of the above. Speculation on the Internet ranges from a secret plot by Osama bin Laden or Russia to cripple American agriculture, to cellular phone towers and high-voltage power lines. A few Christian blogs point to a rapture of the bees, with the tiny creatures responding in the billions to a summons home from the Almighty.

Agriculture now accounts for a small share of U.S. gross domestic product (less than one per cent in 2006). Internationally, however, the value of U.S. agricultural production trails only that of China and India. Corporate farmers enjoy disproportionate political and economic clout at home. With an estimated 14 billion dollars worth of crops in the U.S. depending on bee pollination, American ‘agri-business’ is receiving an ecological wake-up call. The current threat to honeybees is so sudden and of such a magnitude, that some industry experts and scientists are murmuring not just about a downturn in almonds or apples, but about a possible threat to the nation’s food supply.

But the modest honeybee – the Northern Hemisphere’s most important managed pollinator – may be a harbinger of even gloomier portents. If the crash of honeybee populations is akin to that of amphibians and fish, what are the ecological implications of another species die-off? If bustling bee hives are emptying in a matter of days, what is happening to wild bees and other pollinators, and to the environments they sustain?

When asked recently about the bee crisis, Harvard entomologist, Edward O. Wilson, author of The Creation, An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, said, “Honeybees are nature’s workhorse, and we took them for granted. We’ve hung our own future on a thread.” Humans ignore insects at their peril, he says, explaining that mass insect extinctions, including the loss of nematodes and other worms that till the soil, and pollinators like bees, could lead to decreasing agricultural yields, starvation, war, and “an ecological dark age.”

“The survivors,” says Wilson, “would offer prayers for the return of weeds and bugs.”

Honeybees don’t just make honey. Compared to their services as pollinators, the economic value of wax, honey and other bee products is inconsequential. Farmers now need more than the indigenous pollinators buzzing about their fields to produce a profitable yield of high-quality crops. That’s where the native bees’ itinerant commercial cousins come in. Three-quarters of all flowering plants – including most food crops and some that provide fibre, drugs and fuel – depend on pollinators for fertilisation. About one-third of the human diet comes from insect-pollinated plants, and the honeybee is responsible for 80 per cent of that pollination. This is because honeybees are polylectic – they will feed on just about anything that is blooming. In the U.S., some 90 billion honeybees live in 2.4 million commercial colonies. They pollinate more than 90 of the tastiest flowering crops, including apples, nuts, soybeans, asparagus, broccoli, squash, cucumbers, citrus fruits, peaches, cantaloupe, watermelon, blueberries and more. Bee pollination even provides the alfalfa and clover that is processed into hay to feed beef and dairy cattle.

With the rise of monocultural farming and the decline of wild pollinators, honeybee keepers have become migratory so that bees can be concentrated in areas needing pollination. Honeybees are the only commercial pollinators that can be shipped around in sufficient numbers since they are conveniently small, social, and willing to pollinate just about anything that blooms. In addition to receiving farmers’ payments for their bees’ pollinating services, beekeepers sell the honey their bees make.

It was in mid-November of 2006 that David Hackenberg, a 58-year-old commercial beekeeper from Pennsylvania, discovered that the bees he had moved to Florida for the winter had disappeared. The hives were full of honey, indicating a plentiful food supply. Hackenberg’s eerie discovery was soon duplicated in state after state, with bees failing to return to up to 90 per cent of their hives. Scientists call the phenomenon Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), and say that hives suffering from the disorder are left with a queen, a few newly-hatched adults and plenty of food, but no worker bees. CCD has spread to 36 states, with collapses in Brazil, Canada, the U.K., Germany and other European countries as well.

Hackenberg’s discovery came one month after the publication of Status of Pollinators in North America, a report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS) warning that long-term population trends for many North American pollinators were “demonstrably downward.”

About one-third of the human diet comes from insect-pollinated plants, with the honeybee responsible for 80 per cent of such pollination. In the United States, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) – possibly the result of a virus that picks off all worker bees, leaving the queen and her offspring unsupported – has caused unprecedented mortality of honeybees. Photo: Samsul Huda Patgiri.

According to NAS, while shortages of pollinators for agriculture already exist, decreases in wild pollinator populations (a phenomenon receiving little attention in the U.S. media), could disrupt ecosystems, potentially leading to extinction of plant species. “Despite its apparent lack of marquee appeal, a decline in pollinator populations is one form of global change that actually has credible potential to alter the shape and structure of the terrestrial world,” said Dr. May R. Berenbaum, University of Illinois entomologist, and chair of the NAS committee on pollinators.

The NAS may recommend adding honeybees to the endangered species list. It would have to overcome a reluctance on the part of the government to place species like bees, traditionally considered ‘pests’, under the protection of the Endangered Species Act.

Scientists are scrambling to uncover the cause of CCD. While some pin the phenomenon on a single factor such as a new virus, others are dubbing CCD “the perfect storm” of the commercial honeybee industry – rather than being hit by an individual event, bees across the country are probably dealing with simultaneous stresses, which are far more lethal in combination than they are individually.

Dennis van Engelsdorp, Pennsylvania’s apiary inspector, found that though a bee’s innards normally appear white under a microscope, the bees he collected are filled with black scar tissue. Ruling out mites, van Engelsdorp discovered that the creatures seemed to be infected with just about every bee virus known, and new pathogens as well. “There was just so much wrong with them,” van Engelsdorp mused, concluding that the bees’ immune systems were in freefall.

Experts in human epidemiology have joined with honeybee scientists in developing a theory that what honeybees are confronting is a “honeybee AIDS” epidemic. Last month, U.S. scientists announced the results of a new study that indicate that the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV) may be responsible for CCD. IAPV apparently arrived after the U.S. Department of Agriculture lifted its ban on bee importation, and beekeepers rushed to import millions of bees from Australia and New Zealand. Weakened by air travel, those bees proved less efficient than their native counterparts. But while the Australian bees were resistant to the virus they carried, the U.S. bees were not. “This research gives us a very good lead to follow, but we do not believe IAPV is acting alone,” said Jeffrey S. Pettis of the USDA’s Bee Research Laboratory and co-author of the study. “Other stressors on the colony are likely involved.”

In keeping with the ‘perfect storm’ scenario, Pettis and others point to a myriad of factors such as climate change, loss of wild food sources and habitat, genetically modified crops, and pesticide use by farmers and non-farmers, as causing significant stresses as well. They contend that environmental and industrial stresses have made domesticated honeybees (already known for their weak immune systems) more vulnerable to the ravages of pathogens and parasites that bedeviled honeybees long before the appearance of CCD, including the varroa mite, an external parasite. In combination with assaults by exotic tracheal mites and hybridised African bees, released accidentally by Brazilian researchers, Apis mellifera has been under siege for decades. In the last 30 years, the number of honeybees in the U.S. has dropped by half.

With the appearance of CCD, the threat to North America’s honeybees is no longer regional. And other species, says Dr. Berenbaum, can’t be counted on to do the work of the vanishing honeybees: “Even in a high-tech age when the human capacity to improve upon nature seems limitless, there is no satisfactory substitute for the honeybee. CCD is a crisis on top of a crisis. We can’t count on wild pollinators because we’ve so altered the landscape that many are no longer viable.”

Ultimately, the blame for the CCD crisis lies with big agriculture and big population. Corporate agriculture – so different from the small-scale farming practiced just decades ago – is too vast, too unvaried. Too much is being asked of the winged creatures that service it, unbeknownst to many of us. We are in an age when what was once the simplest of biological processes – the pollination of flowering plants by bees – has become a gargantuan, artificial industry. The inherent stresses for commercial honeybees – contending with vast monocultures laden with pesticides, with destruction of natural habitat, with being densely packed together and trucked enormous distances, with being released into far-flung fields abuzz with millions of other bees bearing contagious disease or parasites imported from other lands – appear to be overwhelming.

As Al Gore has observed in educating on climate change, “… we are creating an imbalance in the relationship between civilisation and the earth and are entering a period of consequences.” For Apis mellifera, whose relatives are frequently demonised in horror movies about swarms of “killer” bees descending on unsuspecting villages, it may be we who are the monsters in the garden, rather than the other way around.

In the U.S., there is bipartisan support for legislation that would increase funding for pollinator research and encourage farmers and others to establish and conserve pollinator habitat. There is also, in typically contradictory fashion, a group of powerful California citrus growers lobbying for a bill that would allow them to increase the volume of pesticides used during the citrus bloom, and eliminate large areas of land used as bee pasture for generations.

Alarmed about the looming crisis, the U.S. Senate and the USDA declared the week of June 19-25, 2007, ‘National Pollinator Week’. Invited to Washington for the festivities, Edward O. Wilson mused that there might be a silver lining in the honeybees’ misfortune: “It’s a bad thing when any species is at risk. But in a sense, it’s the (Hurricane) Katrina of entomology.” In bringing public awareness to the plight of pollinators, whom Wilson called “the heart of the biosphere,” honeybees may be helping to bring about a “tipping point in terms of environmental awareness and concern. This is encouraging. It’s the little things in this world – literally at our feet, or buzzing around our heads – that keep us alive.”

Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXVII. No. 5, October 2007.


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