Are honey bees the canary in the mineshaft?

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Albert Einstein made the statement ” If honey bees become extinct, human society will follow in four years.” He was speaking in regard to the symbiotic relationship of all life on the planet. All part of a huge interconnected ecosystem, each element playing a role dependant on many other elements all working in concert creating the symphony of life. Should any part of the global body suffer, so does the whole body.

Many people would be surprised to know that 90% of the feral (wild) bee population in the United States has died out. Recent studies in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands have shown that bee diversity is down 80 percent in the sites researched, and that “bee species are declining or have become extinct in Britain.” The studies also revealed that the numbers of wildflowers that depend on pollination have dropped by 70 percent. Which came first, the decline in wildflowers or the decline in pollinators, has yet to be determined. If bees continue to die off so would the crops they support and with that would ensue major economic disruption and possibly famine.

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In the US, bee keepers are experiencing unprecedented die offs of bees some losing as much as 80% of their colonies. Commercial beekeepers in 22 states have reported deaths of tens of thousands of honeybee colonies. So far the cause remains unexplained and somewhat mysterious. It is being called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and is causing agricultural honeybees nationwide to abandon their hives and disappear and raising worries about crops that need bees for pollination. It’s a kind of mass suicide in the bee world. “There have been cases where there have been these die-offs of bees before, but we have never seen it to this level,” said Maryann Frazier, a Pennsylvania State University entomologist. “One operation after another is collapsing.”

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Bees have done quite well for millions of years, in the last 60 years that began to change. In recent years, beekeepers have been losing 25 percent of their hives each winter. Thirty years ago, the rate was 5 percent to 10 percent, said Keith Tignor, the state apiarist for Virginia.

The unusual phenomenon was first noticed by eastern beekeepers starting last fall. Researchers, including some connected with the Penn State University College of Agricultural Sciences, have identified some of the possible contributors, but have not yet found a single cause. Initial studies on bee colonies experiencing the die-offs have revealed a large number of disease organisms, with most being “stress-related” diseases but without any one agent as the culprit. Climate chaos and extreme weather seem to be a major factor.

It is hard to tell if wild honey bee populations have been affected by the CCD disorder because Varroa mites have “pretty much decimated the wild honey bee population over the past years,” said Maryann Frazier of The Pennsylvania State University Department of Entomology. “This has become a highly significant, yet poorly understood problem that threatens the pollination industry and the production of commercial honey in the United States… Because the number of managed honeybee colonies is less than half of what it was 25 years ago, states such as Pennsylvania can ill afford these heavy losses.”

Dennis van Engelsdorp, acting state apiarist with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture said “Every day, you hear of another operator, It’s just causing so much death so quickly that it’s startling.”

Lee Miller, director of the Beaver County extension office, said the deaths appear to be stress-related, but that stress could come from several sources. Dennis van Engelsdorp of the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture said that initial studies found a large number of disease organisms present, with no one disease being identified as the culprit. And while studies and surveys have found a few common management factors among beekeepers with affected hives, no common environmental agents or chemicals have been identified.

University of California Davis entomologist Eric Mussen specializes in bees. He thinks the answer lies in last summer’s lack of wild flowers, nationwide. Janet Katz, a beekeeper in Chester, NJ, says the weather is having a major impact, “The weather last season was not cooperative,” she said. “Over the course of the season it was too wet, too dry, too hot and too cold, all at the wrong times.” Bees store honey every autumn — a hive needs 60 pounds to survive the winter — but with this year’s warm weather, they ate a lot, and beekeepers had to supplement with sugar syrup.

Florida apiarists say citrus growers are compounding the problem by spraying pesticides to kill off a dangerous pest that menaces fruit trees, wiping out bees at the same time. While a combination of problems is putting the bee population in peril, it’s the phenomenon of the animals suddenly deserting their hives, never to return, that has observers most baffled.

“There have been cases where there have been these die-offs of bees before, but we have never seen it to this level,” said Maryann Frazier, a Pennsylvania State University entomologist. “One operation after another is collapsing.”

At stake is the work the honeybees do, pollinating more than USD 15 billion worth of US crops, including Pennsylvania’s apple harvest, the fourth-largest in the nation, worth USD 45 million, and New Jersey’s cranberries and blueberries.

While a few crops, such as corn and wheat, are pollinated by the wind, bees help pollinate more than 90 commercially grown field crops, citrus and other fruit crops, vegetables and nut crops. Without these insects, crop yields would fall dramatically and some tangerines and pecans would cease to exist. Agronomists estimate Americans owe one in three bites of food to bees.”

All of the following are dependant on bees, apples, pears, tangerines, peaches, soybeans, pumpkins, squash, cucumbers, cherries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, carrots, broccoli and avocados. And do we realise bees pollinate almonds? California has the biggest almond groves in the world, supplying 80 percent of the nuts on the market; they currently have to import millions of bees to pollinate the groves.

There are several unusual things about the phenomena and one common factor that cannot be attributed to be the direct cause but may be an “aggravating other conditions” factor and that is temperature fluctuations.

No single cause drought chemicals/pesticides, mites, bacteria, a fungus or virus seems to be common to all the events or even indicated as a cause in any single event. Extreme weather and temperature fluctuations seem to play a major role stressing the bees and weakening their immune systems.

There are no bee bodies; they simply all disappear, all adult bees are simply gone, sometimes leaving a queen and a few young hatched workers. This is unheard of, since normally a bee colony will do almost anything to protect its queen.

The hive is left intact, with capped cells of honey and bee bread.

Another unusual factor is that bees sensing a dying colony nearby aren’t going in right away and killing the other bees and robbing the hive of honey, like they usually do for example when the bees have died of parasites or disease.

– Researchers have also noted few signs of damage from wax moths and small hive beetles taking advantage of dead colonies.

According to David Tarpy, a bee specialist at NC State, “Bees die all the time, although this year seems to be worse than normal.” The difference now is that none of the “usual suspects” are to blame, Tarpy said. “That’s what makes it problematic.” Also, unlike when bees are killed by some other causes (disease, mites), there are no dead bees littering the bottom of a hive. The bees are simply gone, he said, or perhaps a queen and a few younger bees remain, but the adults have disappeared.

Reports of the situation began to come in over the fall and winter, but scientists don’t yet have an answer. It might be a disease, a pest or an environmental factor or even a combination of effects making bees vulnerable to an existing problem. Now, the bees have sealed themselves inside the hives to stay warm, and the keepers can’t open the structures until spring. Neither entomologists nor growers can say what will happen when the 2007 growing season for most of the country’s crops starts. As a result, some people are really worried.

Diana Cox-Foster, a professor of entomology at Penn State University, has been working on the problem for months now. She says the die-off is unprecedented, and she’s made some dramatic discoveries. For example, the normally resilient bees she dissected showed traces of not one or two diseases, but nearly every disease known to affect them over the past century. They had all the diseases at once, a sign their immune systems have been compromised. “The bees are immuno-compromised, being stressed somehow,” she said. Some could be related to the severe weather swings we’ve seen over the past few years. But many questions remain unanswered.

She and the other scientists working on the CSI-style case don’t think this is just a cyclical thing. It’s uncommon, unusual, and frightening to everyone associated with the often-overlooked industry. No one is sure just how bad it will be when the hives are opened in late march.

Where does milk come from? “The bees pollinate the alfalfa, which feeds the cows, which give the milk. Honeybees are one of the main links in our world. They really need to be nurtured.” Jerry Hayes of the Florida Department of Agriculture worries the bee is the canary in the mine shaft, “telling us something is happening that will have ramifications for us down the road. “I think the bees are so stressed, they are saying, ‘I give up,'” said Hayes, Since the mid-1980s, parasitic mites have been devastating the honey bee population across the country, including the South-eastern US. In North Carolina, the number of kept beehives in the state has dropped by 44 percent, and about 95 percent of wild bees have been wiped out, according to North Carolina State entomologist David Tarpy.

A series of hurricanes in 2004, including Katrina in 2005, destroyed thousands of honey bee colonies, decimating the vital Gulf Coast bee industry. Many of the pollinators for other parts of the country traditionally came from these beekeepers. The economic impact of these storms, especially Katrina is yet to be determined.

“Replacing the Gulf Coast bee colonies, although highly important, is not enough. It is obvious that the huge losses suffered during the past 16 years must be dealt with to provide security for our future honey bee-dependent food supplies. It will take a well-defined series of coordinated efforts by all components of the beekeeping industry and the involvement of local, state and federal governmental entities to solve this potentially disastrous situation,” says John Roberts, a beekeeper and President of Nature Technics Corporation.

There has been a sixty-year decline in pollinators. The honeybees and native bees may live in far more harmony than cats and dogs, but the modern world has not been in harmony with them. The last 60 years have been rough on all pollinators. In the 1940s there were over five million managed colonies of honeybees in the United States. Today there are just over two million, and their numbers are declining, both in North America and worldwide.

The entire world now faces a decline of native pollinators. Over 100 species of birds and more than 80 mammals that pollinate are considered threatened or extinct by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), a network that includes scientists, experts, government agencies and non-governmental organizations from around the world. Each country has its own tale to tell. In southern India, nearly all of the native bees died in the 1990s when they became infected with an imported virus. In Iraq, smoke from the burning oil wells during the Gulf War decimated most of the country’s bee colonies.

In summary plants and animals remote in the scale of nature are bound together by a web of complex relations resulting from dependencies we have yet to fully understand. Every creature seems to play a role even, parasites serve a purpose. We are just beginning to understand the beneficial symbiotic relationship between the human body and certain bacteria. We are dependant on many other species and any failure of one part of the ecosystem can create a domino effect causing disruption throughout the entire chain of life. All plants and animals are vulnerable to climate chaos which seem to be having a major impact. Whether or not we are responsible for climate chaos is not as important an issue as to how humanity will adapt. It could also be that our methods centred on mass production and factory farming are in conflict with nature, as we can see in the case of avian flu, we may be creating a world of pestilence having forgotten that we are part of nature and there is a natural order, balance and harmony that needs to be maintained in the dance of life. Like any species in nature that gets out of hand, nature has a way to keep it in check, and humankind may be the next species in line for severe adjustment or even step-by-step eradication.

By Richard Thomas Gerber