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Colony Collapse: Do Massive Bee Die-Offs Mean an End to Our Food System as We Know it?

It may sound like urban legend but it's not. A frightening trend of bee colony collapses could lead to everything from a radically transformed diet to an overall wipeout of the world's food supply.
 
 
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The joke may have fallen flat, but this time no one could blame Bill Maher. Sure, it happened on the May 4, 2007 installment of his show Real Time With Bill Maher , but CNN personality and senior medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta was the one delivering the punch line, and it seems he was the only one in the room who believed the issue of Earth's mysteriously vanishing honeybees was a joke. And while some may argue that he stayed on message, promoting his May 19 documentary called Danger: Poison Food , he nevertheless fumbled for answers when Maher asked him about what could be killing a major component of the nation's food supply.

"Gosh, I don't know," Gupta answered, searching for context. "The -- you know, with regards to bees in particular, I'm not sure what's killing the bees. I'm not sure what's killing the birds or the bees."

Cue the laugh track.

In Gupta's defense, a few weeks or months ago, the increasing disappearance of the honeybees, known now by the technical term Colony Collapse Disorder, had that feel of an urban legend, a phenomenon so esoteric and strange that it sounded like something out of science fiction. Except it's not: It's a frightening trend that, according to those hard at work at solving the problem at universities and organizations worldwide, could lead to everything from a radically transformed diet to an overall wipeout of the world's food supply.

"It is real," argued Dewey M. Caron, professor of entomology at the University of Delaware and one of several authorities investigating the issue with the Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium's Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group ( MAAREC). "We surveyed a few states and figured out that half to three-fourths of a million bee colonies have died. This is no urban legend. It is serious."

What is so serious is not only that the bees themselves are dying off without a smoking gun present, but that most people have no idea of the role they play in the food supply at large. Commercial beehives pollinate over a third of America's crops, and that web of nourishment encompasses everything from fruits like peaches, apples, cherries, strawberries and more, to nuts like California almonds, 90 percent of which are helped along by the honeybees. Without this annual pollination, you could conceivably kiss those crops goodbye, to say nothing of the honey bees produce or the flowers they also fertilize.

But as the world has grown, so has its hunger and crowds, which has paved the way for the death of wild pollinators as well as the importation of honeybees from different climates in order to have massive crop pollination.

In the case of California's aforementioned almonds, the largest managed pollination event in the world, the growing season occurs in February, well before local hives have suitably increased their populations to handle the pollination load. As a result, the region is increasingly dependent on the importation of hives from warmer climates.

The same goes for apple crops in New York, Washington and Michigan, as well as blueberries in Maine. Almonds alone require more than one-third of all the managed honeybees in the United States, so it's entirely possible that the honeybees may have already been stretched to the breaking point, as far as environmental and chemical stressors are concerned. In fact, it's safe to say that the nation's honeybees, already a tireless lot, are totally exhausted from work.

"The honeybee is so important for pollination of hundreds of agricultural crops, because humans have made it so," Caron explained. "We destroyed the natural pollinators, plowed up the area they needed to live and continued to replace their habitats with strip malls and housing developments. So, farmers have come to rely on honeybees because of mushrooming human populations and our own destructive habits to the natural ecology."

And not just here, either: The disappearance is under way across the world. Regions of Iran are experiencing the same phenomenon, as are countries like Poland, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Germany and more every day, including Latin American and Asia. The breadth of the problem suggests that a major environmental balance could be to blame -- what else is new? -- yet no authority will sign off on the possibility and the specific causes still remain unknown.

"Other countries are also experiencing serious declines of honeybee colonies," said Maryann Frazier, senior extension associate at MAAREC and the department of entomology at Penn State University. "But we are not certain that the cause behind the losses here in the United States are the same as those causing [losses] in other parts of the world."

Throw in the fact that this type of thing has been recorded as a regular occurrence since the 19th century, and you have an apiary mystery of mammoth proportions.

"Bee colonies die all the time," Caron added. "They die over winter, lose queens, are destroyed by pests or diseases. But this is different, as the bees are simply gone and do not develop normally."

"We have had honeybee die-offs in the past which may or may not be related to the current situation," said Frazer. "However, they seem to be getting more severe. If the problem of honeybee health isn't addressed quickly, there could be serious consequences."

Meanwhile, MAAREC and others have ruled out a few possibilities, at least in the sense that they are not currently studying them. Radiation from cell phone towers -- "Get serious!" laughed Caron -- and genetically modified organism (GMO) crops such as Bt corn are no longer in the chase for public enemy No. 1, although some farmers would like them studied further. John McDonald, a biologist, beekeeper and farmer in rural Pennsylvania wrote an extensive piece for the San Francisco Chronicle questioning the role Bt corn, which is used extensively in commercial beekeeping, plays in the suppression of the honeybee's immune system. He echoed the concern to a recent roundtable on the issue for Salon.com., but so far, the scientific and industry consensus, for what it's worth, seems to be mostly united on disavowal of the GMO threat.

But why? After all, the rapid increase of GMO crops plays as much a role in the destabilization of natural environments as warming temperatures, which opens the doors to all manner of pathogens and parasites, such as the Varroa (or vampire) mite infestation that allegedly leveled the same fate on crops in the winter of 2004-2005. And though that particular theory carries a good amount of weight in the scientific community, it has yet to be ultimately confirmed. Same goes for the fungus Nosema ceranae, which was reported in the Los Angeles Times as being one of the many recently discovered pathogens that could be devastating honeybees in Europe, Asia and America.

"By itself, it is probably not the culprit," Diana Cox-Foster, Caron and Frazer's colleague at MAAREC, as well as a professor of entomology at Penn State University, told the Times, "but it may be one of the key players."

And so on. Science's search for the smoking gun may not be able to see the honey for the bees, pardon the paraphrase, because they are searching for so specific a threat in the face of an acknowledged overall environmental instability. Scientists may be hard at work looking for a pathogen, parasite, pesticide, pollutant or disease, and may not be interested in arguing that the culprit could be all of them, given what the IPCC and others are calling our precarious environmental situation. So the question has to be asked: Is this yet another byproduct of climate crisis, our increasing global temperature? As usual, the answers aren't too satisfying.

"There is no way to demonstrate global warming effects with a simple experiment," Caron explained, "but last year was very poor nutrition-wise. We do not have the smoking gun. Our experiments are along three credible lines. Stressors inside or outside, including beekeeper manipulations, may stress bees leading to their being susceptible to pathogens. The pathogens themselves -- maybe a virus has mutated and is now in epidemic form -- but we cannot say the pathogens are the cause or effect. Or chemical stressors, such a pesticides that bees are increasingly exposed to, causing them to have weakened immune systems that then permit pathogens to enter more easily and kill the bees. Chemicals could be acting synergistically."

But what could be more synergistic than our environment, a dense webwork of annually occurring natural actors and events that give us our food, air and water on a basis so regular that we barely take the time to notice how all of it works? Or what we will do when it stops working?

And that is where the future of this debate lies, regardless of what is causing the honeybees to disappear. What this phenomenon has made glaringly obvious is our vulnerability to any environmental disruption going forward. Which is a scary proposition, plugged in as we are to addictive simulations like American Idol and YouTube while our real-time environments bite the dust. What do we do when the honeybees stop working for our collective benefit?

"We can find alternatives and grow other crops," Caron said, "but not immediately. It will take time for farmers to adjust. In the meantime, our food production goes offshore, and we become a food-dependent country like England, a decision their leaders elected to pursue when they stopped supporting agriculture. But most people think food comes from the supermarket, and they have no perception of what things cost anyway."

Since perception is reality, as the aphorism goes, that attitude might change in a hurry once the strawberries and almonds stop coming. The way forward, therefore, is the same as it ever was: Education and funding. We're not going to make it to the next century without both.

"Twelve cats died from tainted foodstuffs," Caron fumed, "and six vets at Cornell University alone were studying the losses. Meanwhile, we have a few dedicated pathologists and bee experts on this issue. What is wrong with this picture? Twelve cats or the loss of one-fourth of America's bee colonies? Not to say the cat deaths didn't need to be investigated, but the resources we are prepared to pour into that issue versus the disappearance of our honeybees is what is out of whack."

Now that's a joke, Dr. Gupta. A terrifying one.

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.

 
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