The Strange Case Of The Dying Bees

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In the 1970 movie “No Blade of Grass,” a disease strikes grasses, which kills off most human and animal food:

“Three cereals – rice, wheat, and maize (corn) – provide more than half of all calories eaten by humans. Of all crops, 70% are grasses [including oats, rye, sorghum, millet, and sugarcane].” –Wikipedia

No bees, no honey.

No bees, no honey.

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), in which hives of European honey bees die off (US honey bees were originally imported from Europe; there were never native honey bees in North or South America), has been known for a long time, appearing intermittently and at a low level at least since the nineteenth century, but in 2006 it began a dramatic rise in the US, Canada and Europe. Losses of 90% or more of all hives have been reported since then, although the average is about one-third.

While not as devastating as the loss of grasses, food plants fertilized by honey bees include apples, oranges, lemons, limes, broccoli (a lot of kids won’t miss this one, of course), onions, blueberries, cherries, cranberries, cucumbers (and the pickles made from cucumbers), cantaloupes, carrots, avocados, almonds, alfalfa, cotton, peaches, pears, safflower and sunflower.

No honey bees = no cucumbers = no pickles

For Starbucks zombies, the bad news is that coffee is one plant which requires fertilization by honey bees or other kinds of bees or it will not produce any beans. And, of course, no honey bees, no honey.  And clover, which is used to produce honey as well as in widespread use as animal food, would greatly diminish.

Not only might we lose these fruits, nuts, and vegetables, but a lot of money is at stake. In just the case of almonds in California, which are mostly fertilized by honey bees, the crop value is $2.3 billion and uses about half of all the honey bees in the US.

In 2000, the total U.S. crop value that was wholly dependent on honey bee pollination was estimated to exceed $15 billion.

No bees could mean the end of California's $2.3 billion almond industry.

No bees could mean the end of California’s $2.3 billion almond industry.

And home gardeners and nurseries would be affected, as honey bees (and other kinds of bees) fertilize many kinds of ornamentals and herbs, such as rosemary, basil, lavender, sunflower, catnip, oregano, and purple coneflower.

Before you run off screaming that the world is going to end, though, let’s clear up a few matters.

First of all, many crops are not fertilized by honey bees, although some are fertilized by other kinds of bees. So if bees in general die off, not just honey bees, then a lot of plants will vanish; a 2006 report by the National Academies of Science concluded that the populations of many other wild pollinators—especially wild bees—was trending “demonstrably downward.”

...your home herb garden too.

…your home herb garden too.

Luckily for humans and their domestic animals, grasses and beans don’t require honey bees for pollination.  And many other plants we eat don’t require fertilization because we don’t eat their flowers or fruits, but their leaves, stems and roots, such as spinach, cabbage, carrots and beets. Of course, if we want those plants to produce seed, some of them will need to be fertilized by bees.

Scientists are not sure why bees are dying and whether it will continue or grow worse; CCD seems to have slowed or at least plateaued in the last few years.  As Mark Twain said:

“Researchers have already cast much darkness on the subject, and if they continue their investigations, we shall soon know nothing at all about it.”

One possible significant cause of CCD is the use of nicotine-based pesticides (neonicotinoids), one of the most widely used group of pesticides in the world.  The increased use of neonicotinoids roughly tracks the rise of CCD. The European Food Safety Authority, after a review this year, banned their use until at least 2016.  Neonicotinoids affect not only honey bees but also other kinds of bees (see above). In the US, the EPA has been sued over neonicotinoid use and its effects on bees.

Even some “bee-friendly” garden plants turn out to be contaminated with neonicotinoids applied by nurseries. The pesticide was not just on the surface, but had been absorbed into the entire plant through the roots.

Click here to save the honey bees!

Click here to save the honey bees!

Besides the neonicotinoids, there is concern that the “inactive” ingredients used to boost effectiveness of the pesticides may also be toxic to bees, compounds some of which are secret “proprietary” chemicals, and thus cannot be investigated by researchers.

Other possible causes of CCD identified by scientists include mites, parasites, a virus, and a variety of environmental factors (translation: human-caused stress on bee food and habitats, as well as the moving of bee hives for rental to farmers for pollination, which spreads whatever factors might cause CCD to local bees).

So be thankful for and nice to bees.  I’m grateful for Key Lime pie myself.