The Plight of the Honeybee

8/23/13
 
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from TIME Magazine,
8/19/13:

Mass deaths in bee colonies may mean disaster for farmers–and your favorite foods.

Bee hives are dying off or disappearing thanks to a still-unsolved malady called colony collapse disorder (CCD), so much so that commercial beekeepers are being pushed out of the business.

So what’s killing the honeybees? Pesticides — including a new class called neonicotinoids — seem to be harming bees even at what should be safe levels.

Biological threats like the Varroa mite are killing off colonies directly and spreading deadly diseases.

Other researchers have pointed a finger at fungal infections like the parasite Nosema ceranae, possibly in league with a pathogen like the invertebrate iridescent virus.

There’s also the simple fact that beekeepers live in a country that is becoming inhospitable to honeybees. To survive, bees need forage, which means flowers and wild spaces. Our industrialized agricultural system has conspired against that, transforming the countryside into vast stretches of crop monocultures–factory fields of corn or soybeans that are little more than a desert for honeybees starved of pollen and nectar.

For all the enemies that are massing against honeybees, a bee-pocalypse isn’t quite upon us yet. Even with the high rates of annual loss, the number of managed honeybee colonies in the U.S. has stayed stable over the past 15 years, at about 2.5 million. That’s still significantly down from the 5.8 million colonies that were kept in 1946.

If the honeybee is a victim of natural menaces like viruses and unnatural ones like pesticides, it’s worth remembering that the bee itself is not a natural resident of the continent. It was imported to North America in the 17th century, and it thrived until recently because it found a perfect niche in a food system that demands crops at ever cheaper prices and in ever greater quantities. That’s a man-made, mercantile ecosystem that not only has been good for the bees and beekeepers but also has meant steady business and big revenue for supermarkets and grocery stores.

A quote that’s often attributed to Albert Einstein became a slogan: “If the bee disappears from the surface of the globe, man would have no more than four years to live.”

If we don’t do something, there may not be enough honeybees to meet the pollination demands for valuable crops. As valuable as honeybees are, the food system wouldn’t collapse without them. The backbone of the world’s diet–grains like corn, wheat and rice–is self-pollinating. But our dinner plates would be far less colorful, not to mention far less nutritious, without blueberries, cherries, watermelons, lettuce and the scores of other plants that would be challenging to raise commercially without honeybee pollination.

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