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Bees – Still Feeling Pretty Freakin’ Underappreciated

Beekeepers opening their hives for spring 2010 are finding losses of up to 50%

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Courtesy: Marc Roberts

Spring has sprung in Europe, and yesterday I saw my first bee of the new decade zig by. I admire these unselfish little workers – conscientiously going about their daily duties, wholly unaware of their own significance. They ask little, give much, and so much depends on their instinctive behaviour.

Unfortunately too many of us are totally unaware of their significance too, it seems.

The value of pollinators starts to come into focus when you consider that more than 80% of our crop species require pollination for reproduction. Imagine if you had to walk the fields with a feather duster and do the job yourself?

In centuries past, bees were just one of a great many pollinators, who all worked in different ways but achieved similar goals – that of increasing diversity and stabilising the natural order of the plant kingdom. Today, through monocropping, however, we’ve eliminated the niche environments many of those ‘other’ pollinators (butterflies, moths, bats, nectar sucking birds like hummingbirds, etc.) depended on. Our mismanagement of natural systems has put the critical burden of pollination on one species in particular, the European honeybee. It is now the pollinator of choice for the industrial agriculture system worldwide. And, it’s quietly dying.

Four years ago an environmental tipping point was reached that has seen honeybee populations plummet. It began in the U.S. of A. but has spread to dozens of countries worldwide. Every year since, beekeepers have opened their hives at the end of winter with a high degree of apprehension…. This year initial reports tell us that bee casualty rates for the 2009/2010 winter may be up to 50%.

America’s dwindling honey bee population has been badly hit by the bitter winter, the harshest in decades, with experts warning that winter losses could be as high as 50 percent.

Beekeepers normally lose around 10 percent of their colonies during the wintertime, when food stores are low and bees are confined to the hive.

But preliminary estimates indicate that this year, losses will be between 30 to 50 percent, said David Mendes, president of the American Beekeeping Federation. – Sydney Morning Herald

And, pesticide companies are attracting unwanted attention over this:

Among all the stresses to bee health, it’s the pesticides that are attracting scrutiny now. A study published Friday in the scientific journal PLOS (Public Library of Science) One found about three out of five pollen and wax samples from 23 states had at least one systemic pesticide — a chemical designed to spread throughout all parts of a plant.

EPA officials said they are aware of problems involving pesticides and bees and the agency is "very seriously concerned."

The pesticides are not a risk to honey sold to consumers, federal officials say. And the pollen that people eat is probably safe because it is usually from remote areas where pesticides are not used, Pettis said. But the PLOS study found 121 different types of pesticides within 887 wax, pollen, bee and hive samples.

"The pollen is not in good shape," said Chris Mullin of Penn State University, lead author.

None of the chemicals themselves were at high enough levels to kill bees, he said, but it was the combination and variety of them that is worrisome.

University of Illinois entomologist May Berenbaum called the results "kind of alarming."

Despite EPA assurances, environmental groups don’t think the EPA is doing enough on pesticides.

Bayer Crop Science started petitioning the agency to approve a new pesticide for sale in 2006. After reviewing the company’s studies of its effects on bees, the EPA gave Bayer conditional approval to sell the product two years later, but said it had to carry a label warning that it was "potentially toxic to honey bee larvae through residues in pollen and nectar."

The Natural Resources Defense Council sued, saying the agency failed to give the public timely notice for the new pesticide application. In December, a federal judge in New York agreed, banning the pesticide’s sale and earlier this month, two more judges upheld the ruling.

"This court decision is obviously very painful for us right now, and for growers who don’t have access to that product," said Jack Boyne, an entomologist and spokesman for Bayer Crop Science. "This product quite frankly is not harmful to honeybees."

Boyne said the pesticide was sold for only about a year and most sales were in California, Arizona and Florida. The product is intended to disrupt the mating patterns of insects that threaten citrus, lettuce and grapes, he said.

Berenbaum’s research shows pesticides are not the only problem. She said multiple viruses also are attacking the bees, making it tough to propose a single solution.

"Things are still heading downhill," she said. –

As much as we might detest dousing our environment and our food with pesticides, I don’t believe this is the only cause of this particular problem – a disease which has been likened to HIV in humans, as it effects the immune system of our six-legged friends.

Consider that in the natural order of things, in a biodiverse system, bees and other pollinators would be feeding on a wide variety of food sources. But now it’s something else entirely, as they deal with vast fields of only the same thing, and have their honey replaced with sugar water. Imagine if you ate only french fries, every day for years. How can we expect bees to survive on nothing but monocrop systems, many of which are genetically modified to produce pesticides in every cell of the plant?

If we’re looking for root causes, there are a great many of them, as I expressed in Colony Collapse Disorder, a Moment for Reflection – but if we’re looking for solutions, that’s far easier. Think of the resilience and stability that comes of increasing diversity. Think food forests. Think small scale.

While the mainstream media will focus on the honeybee – essentially an industrial worker – and the direct implications for the agricultural industry, in terms of profits and reduced crop harvests, it should be noted that the loss of pollinators (strange things are happening to bats too, by the way) impacts much more than just almonds and apples. Those ‘other’ pollinators I mentioned above should not be forgotten. Indeed, they should be reinstated. These pollinators, many of which are endangered or have already gone the way of the dodo, are critical to non-agricultural plant systems that support all life on the planet.

Nature keeps ringing the alarm bell, trying to point us in the right direction. Are we listening?


  1. Some of us are listening. We are experimenting with more natural, small-scale beekeeping methods, with the emphasis on bee welfare rather than honey production.

    Meanwhile, insects are being killed off by the billion by Bayer and others, who spend a fortune on lobbying governments to get their poisons to market. Fishermen, bird watchers and others close to nature have noticed a massive drop in insect hatches over the last few years, and this will have devastating consequences for animals higher up the food chain.

    We all need to wake up and protest this mass slaughter.

  2. I run natural beekeeping hives in Canberra and have given presentations on natural beekeeping, the hives and how to build and run them to the Beekeeping Association of the ACT which was well received. We may not be able to happens on the other side of the fence but we can help by starting to make a difference on our own properties.

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