What Happened To The Bees?

By Maria Stevens, January 2010

The answer is probably overwork, coupled with various nutritional and environmental factors that are the flipside of pollination on an industrial scale and intensified food production.

What does this mean?

v     Nutrition: honeybees are fed a mixture of high fructose corn syrup to get colonies through the winter months.  During pollination months, bees are released into monoculture crops, where they receive only limited nutritional variety.  A lack of variation in the diet leads to micronutrient deficiencies, which leave the body wanting, cause stress, and weaken the immune system.

v     Overwork: honeybees are trucked thousands of miles in the season, and released onto crop after crop.  Trucking bees to warmer climates during the winter tricks their biological rhythms into thinking it is time to pollinate.  This lack of rest, and inability to sleep (yes, bees sleep) during transport, causes stress and also weakens their immunity.

v     Insecticides: widespread and heavy use of insecticides (as well as the use of GMO crops that produce insecticides) have been largely to blame.  The introduction of a brand new insecticide called GAUCHO on French sunflower crops have received much attention. The ingredient in GAUCHO that is most to blame is imidacloprid or IMD, a chlorinated nicotine-based insecticide or “neonicotinoid.” IMD is similar to DDT except it is relatively safe to humans and mammals but is toxic to insects, and especially bees.

v     Disease and fungi: numerous latent deleterious genes (e.g., Israeli acute paralysis virus), fungi, and parasites have been identified in the bee community.  Stress, malnutrition, and immunosupression all contribute to the expression of these ailments.

The Fundamental Problem:

When bees die, beekeepers can restock their hives quickly by buying a new queen who lays 2,000 eggs a day at her peak. Across the world, most have chosen to fill their apiaries with a type of honeybee renowned for its gentle nature and prodigious honey production skills. This race of bee, originally from Italy, now dominates beekeeping. The downside is that the honeybee gene pool has been diminished and with it traits that may have helped bees fend off mites and other parasites, such as a new fungal bacteria, Nosema ceranae, that attacks its gut.

Biologists will tell you that it will be only a matter of time before a super bee breeds a super parasite.

Environmentalists argue for conservation measures on land planted with single crops that will both improve honeybee nutrition and attract wild pollinators that could shoulder some of the honeybees’ workload. Monoculture, the hallmark of modern agriculture, covers much of the world’s 1.5bn hectares of arable land. Single-crop plantations and orchards can stretch for hundreds of kilometers. The advantages for the farmer are manifold: the crop blooms at the same time, can be treated with the same pesticides and can be harvested together for maximum efficiency. But for honeybees, pollen collected from one crop does not provide a balanced, varied, nutritious diet. Scientists agree that malnourished bees are more susceptible to disease and pesticide poisoning, while the best-fed are the hardiest.

In conclusion, the monoculture of bee-keeping, coupled with industrial agricultural monoculture, is a systemic problem, highly susceptible to massive wipeouts and die-outs.  A problem in one system causes comorbidities involving the other system.  Modern food production has yielded a highly efficient, but also fundamentally weak system.
Solutions?  A switch to organic agriculture, coupled with efforts to diversify the honeybee population.

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