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Have Bees Become Canaries In the Coal Mine? Why Massive Bee Dieoffs May Be a Warning About Our Own Health

What scientists are beginning to understand about the cause of colony collapse could be a message for all of us.

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Hackenberg isn't doing as poorly as he was several years ago, but he attributes that to feeding the bees protein and supplements like brewers yeast and eggs and "kicking them in the pants with all kinds of nutrition because what they are gathering out there in nature is not what it's supposed to be." Hackenberg says, "We -- America or the world -- has messed up the bees' diet. Not only the bees' diet but everyone else's diet. We just don't have the nutrition that's out there in the food and bees are telling us this because what they are bringing home -- they can't make it anymore. We're supplementing them... and the bees are eating it... But go back 10-15 years ago, we didn't need this stuff."

A key question is whether the problem is simply a laundry list of unrelated factors (i.e. pesticides, disease, parasites, etc.) or whether those factors interact synergistically to kill bees. For example, does a sub-lethal dose of a relatively new pesticide make bees susceptible to die from a disease they would normally be able to recover from? This is important because it impacts the way the EPA should handle regulation of pesticides. If pesticides kill some bees, but parasites or diseases kill others, then the EPA's role is to merely ensure that the doses of pesticides used are low enough that they don't kill bees while scientists do their best to uncover how to treat parasites and disease. However, if low doses of pesticides weaken bees, making them susceptible to death by other causes (just like AIDS makes a patient susceptible to diseases that would not kill a healthy person), then the EPA will need to take more action.

Beekeepers see their bees as the canaries in the coal mine. All living beings are exposed to the cocktail of pesticides and other chemicals in our midst, each in sub-lethal doses but all mixing together and interacting in our bodies. Many Americans, like bees used to pollinate monocultures, do not eat very healthy or nutritious diets, and our stressful and sedentary lifestyles put us at even more risk of succumbing to illness. Are the bees giving us a message we should be heeding?

Dr. Nieh suggests that large growers could keep their own bees to give them "skin in the game." Currently, he says, one "focus is how much do I have to pay this year to rent honeybee colonies." If farmers kept their own bees, they would be "really invested in keeping these colonies healthy because these are the colonies that are pollinating their cash crop." Additionally, reducing the movement of bees around the country would slow the spread of diseases.

Nieh also sees a potential conflict of interest in the way that pesticides are approved by the EPA. "The approval process of pesticides would benefit from greater transparency and probably should undergo a more rigorous review process than it has in the past," he says. "It is a problem to require someone, a company like Bayer that has a vested interest in the approval, to pay for studies to show their pesticide is harmless."

For average Americans, in addition to eating foods grown without the use of pesticides, there are easy ways to support bees -- both honeybees and native bees. To attract and nourish pollinators, plant flowers in varieties of shapes, sizes and colors. Native plants are the best to attract native species of bees. Plant flowers in clumps instead of singly or in rows, and be sure that there is something blooming at all times during the year (at least, when your yard or garden is not covered in snow). Bees also need a water source, preferably shallow water so they will not drown. For more advice, visit the Xerces Society website.  

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