Monday, June 16, 2008

PBS "Nature" show on bees

('bzzzzzz' means we don't feel so good)
Pretty much everyone has heard by now that honeybees are sick. And as our media is wont to do, the story has been all but ignored. When it is mentioned, the coverage is perfunctory, and usually opens with "Imagine not having honey for your oatmeal in the morning!"- an end-user scare tactic that really is beside the point. Granted, it's a complicated issue, and not understood yet. But the media blackout on it simply boggles, considering the vast implications on global economies, crop failures, health, and ecosystems.
In a nutshell: honeybees are dying, by the billions. The condition was first noted in 2006. As it affected whole colonies, it earned the name Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). At first, no bees were found at all- bees would simply go off to collect food and not return to the hives. This is not unusual behavior for bees: When bees are sick, they fly off to die, so as not to infect the hive. But it typically happens one bee at a time, not to entire colonies. Beekeepers were stumped. Scientists were called in, and they were equally stumped. By 2007, a handful of bee bodies were found, enough to perform autopsies. What they found was shocking: bees had every bee disease known, all at the same time. This suggested to scientists a total breakdown of their immune systems, leading some to call it bee AIDS. But the causes were, and are still, unknown.
Theories of the causes are wide and varied. Here's just a partial list:
--Cellphone signals (an early theory, now debunked)
--Pesticide and herbicide use
--Non-organic crops and GMOs
--Human-generated pollution
--Slow starvation from malnourishment, due to feeding on huge monoculture crops (one scientist in the show compared it to "feeding your dog a diet of only bread")
--Stress of transport via tractor-trailer over many thousands of miles to pollinate crops
--High-fructose corn syrup used as over-winter food, instead of their own honey
--Honeycomb starter cell sizes (to increase honey production) are too large, and lead to an increase of varroa mites and other pests in the hive
Most bee keepers and experts believe it's a combination of some or all of the above. For a while, organic beekeepers were reporting stable, healthy colonies. But this year, it seems to be affecting the organic keepers more often, too.
I'm thankful the bee disaster is finally getting some PBS love. The show was well-produced, like all Nature shows. The timeline was clearly laid out, the variety of symptoms and their possible causes explained. But my disappointment was that the big picture was simply off the table. The topic of the industrial food growing system itself was not broached at all. It underscored to me the plain fact that these petro-industrial methods are now taken as fixed and rote. This critical issue truly can't be adressed unless we look at our system as an interdependence of its parts. If such a major component is broken, the entire system must be diagnosed holistically.
Here are some bee facts- honeybees are not native to the Americas. They were brought over by early settlers from Europe. But along with honeybees, European crops were brought over too, which had adapted over millennia to European honeybee pollination effiency. The Americas have lots of native pollinators- one important pollinator is the Mason bee- but the Mason bee does not produce honey or beeswax, royal jelly or bee pollen, all of which have become very important economic crops around the world. If the honeybee goes extinct, major crops will probably go with it- almonds, corn, wheat, avocado, watermelon, apples, pears, cherries and many more- as it's unlikely hand-pollination would or could be utilized on such a vast scale. The show ended with the sobering fact that if we don't figure out a way to fix this, honeybees could be wiped out by 2035.
On a personal note, I've been hand-pollinating my zucchini since it started flowering last week. I haven't seen a single honeybee this year- other native pollinators, but no honeybees. By this time last year, I'd already had many, many sightings. I'm letting some my lettuces and mustards on the ledge go to seed with the hopes their flowers will wave down some honeybees soon.
Here's the PBS link, if you're interested.


Melissa said...

thanks for the link. this is such a scary thing, and I can't believe it's not getting more press. Hello, if there is one thing people get upset about in this country it's when they think they might have to change their eating (ok, or driving) habits - so why haven't we heard a bigger outcry about this?

Robbyn said...

Hey! Yes, this is a serious situation. I am a bee LOVER and cannot imagine a world without them..and yet they simply aren't present in the numbers I remember them from my childhood. Back then, you had to take care not to step on them by accident, quite often.

The good news is that organic beekeepers have not experienced the losses that others have, and there is a type of hive called the top bar hive that allows bees to build in a way that is not as friendly to the varroa mites. It also allows them to build their combs where the cells are a smaller size...since most of industrial beekeeping uses forms preprinted with wax cells that are a larger size to encourage the production of more honey. I'm probably not using the correct beekeeping terms, since I've not kept them yet, but the long and short as I understand it is that the top bar hives allow the bees to build their own comb, which is allround more suitable and healthier for them. You'll see such an example on the PathtoFreedom site, and you'll see that by simply allowing the sun to melt the honey through a cheesecloth barrier, it's a much more straightforward process than having to use an extractor, etc. With the topbar hives, you simply cut the combs off rather than their being fixed to four-sided frames that need different handling. I'm still trying to find the actual literature, but there are a lot of organic bee keepers out there who use natural products as deterrants to the destructive varroa mite...and many areas right now are actually seeing their organic hives bursting at the seams with honey...and many swarms are being caught...all of which is encouraging news on the bee front! To me, it means that bees are resilient enough creatures that they prefer organic methods and are racing to fill the gap left by the disappearance of the rest of their kind.

You'll never convince me that the disappearance of honeybbees on this large a scale is NOT because of genetically-modifying major crops, and because of pesticides. I thinkk the GM crops are the culprits of many changes that we'll not see attributed to them until there's something major that happens to humans on a wide scale, due to Monsanto and other companies' successes in having no accountability and being so powerful to resist.

Robbyn said...

On another note, I'm trying to find a contact email address to send you instructions about the meme...and how to link in your text (it's really easy), but can't find one.

My email address is if you'd like to try that way? :)

plantainpatch said...

Great post Ilex. Thanks for the heads up on the Nature program. I did the same thing let some lettuce and bok choy go to seed to attract the bees and beneficials.