The disappearance of bee colonies around the world could ravage agriculture -- and it's all our fault.
Rumor has it Albert Einstein once declared humanity could only outlive the bee by about four years. His reasoning was simple: "no more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man."
Nothing like entomological doomsday scenarios from a classical physicist, right?
Nonetheless, it looks like we're poised to find out if the godfather of relativity is right. Bees are disappearing at an alarming rate, particularly in the United States and Germany. And while it's normal for hive populations to fall during colder winter months, the recent exodus is puzzling beekeepers and researchers around the world. Are we witnessing the death throes of the human race firsthand? Will the bee go the way of the dodo? Not likely, but I'll tell you one thing – whatever's driving the collapse of the bee population, it's man-made.
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"During the last three months of 2006, we began to receive reports from commercial beekeepers of an alarming number of honey bee colonies dying in the eastern United States," says Maryann Frazier, an apiarist with Penn State University. "Since the beginning of the year, beekeepers from all over the country have been reporting unprecedented losses," including one gentleman who's lost 800 of his 2,000 colonies in less than four months.
Those losses are atypical. The usual causes of death, aside from climate, are varroa mites, hive beetles, and wax moths, which infest hives weakened by sickness and malnutrition. Annual casualties tend to hover in the 20th percentile, and beekeepers work with entomologists to protect their investments via antibiotics, miticides, and advanced pest management.
Not so today. The current blight has spread across the country rapidly, leaving abandoned hives full of uneaten food and unhatched larvae. Natural predators brave enough to enter behave erratically, "acting in a way you normally don’t expect them to act," says beekeeper Julianne Wooten. And whereas naturally abandoned hives are infested by other insects within a short period of time, hives affected by what is tentatively labeled colony collapse disorder (CCD) are avoided.
California and Texas have been hit particularly hard by the sudden disappearance of bees, but dozens of other states are reporting major losses as well. And when you consider bees are big business as well as a critical part of the food chain, that vanishing act is no laughing matter. Consider:
bees are essential for pollinating over 90 varieties of vegetables and fruits, including apples, avocados, blueberries, and cherries;
pollination increases the yield and quality of crops by approximately $15 billion annually; and
California's almond industry alone contributes $2 billion to the local economy, and depends on 1.4 million bees, which are brought in from all over the United States.
Bees stimulate the food supply as well as the economy. So what's the cause of colony collapse? Suspicions are pointed in several different directions, including cell phone transmissions and agricultural pesticides, some of which are known to be poisonous to bees. But if these two factors are responsible, why are the deaths not a global phenomenon? The bee collapse began in isolated pockets before progressing rapidly around the nation. If cell phones are to blame, shouldn't the effect have been simultaneous, and witnessed years ago? And if pesticides are strictly to blame, shouldn't beekeepers near major farm systems be able to track those pollutants and narrow the field of possible suspects?
Perhaps they have – and the culprit is bigger than we imagine.
Several scientists have come forward with the startling claim that genetically modified food – you know, that blessing from above that would solve famine and put food in the belly of every undernourished, Third World child – is destroying bees. How could something so wondrous as pest-resistant corn kill millions upon millions of bees? Simple – by producing so much natural pesticide that bees are either driven mad or away.
Most genetically-modified seeds have a transplanted segment of DNA that creates a well-known bacterium, bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), in its cells. Normally Bt is not a problem – it's a naturally-occurring pesticide that's been used as a spray for years by farmers looking to control crop damage from butterflies. And it's effective at helping beekeepers keep bees alive, too – Bt is sprayed under hive lids to keep those pesky wax moths from attacking.
But "instead of the bacterial solution being sprayed on the plant, where it is eaten by the target insect, the genes that contain the insecticidal traits are incorporated into the genome of the farm crop," writes biologist and beekeeper John McDonald. "As the transformed plant grows, these Bt genes are replicated along with the plant genes so that each cell contains its own poison pill that kills the target insect.
"Canadian beekeepers have detected the disappearance of the wax moth in untreated hives, apparently a result of worker bees foraging in fields of transgenic canola plants. [And] the planting of transgenic corn and soybean has increased exponentially, according to statistics from farm states. Tens of millions of acres of transgenic crops are allowing Bt genes to move off crop fields."
McDonald's analysis stands up under scrutiny. A former agronomist has commented that the one trial of GM crops in the Netherlands quickly led to colony collapse within 100 kilometers of the fields, and it's reasonable to hypothesize nature's pollinators would bear an averse reaction to plants with poison coursing through every stem.
"The amount of Bt in these plants is enough to trigger allergies in some people, and irritate the skin and eyes of farmers who handle the crops," writes Patrick Wiebe. "In India, when sheep were used to clear a field of leftover Bt cotton, several sheep died after eating it." If it can kill a sheep, it can certainly kill a bee.
What can be done? Precious little if gene-modified plants are the genesis of colony collapse. "There is no way to keep genetically modified genes from escaping into the wild," says Mike Rivero. "Wild varieties of corn in Mexico have been found to contain artificial genes carried by the wind and bees. Indeed it is probable that the gene that makes the plant cells manufacture a pesticide has already escaped, which means this problem will only spread.
"This is far more dangerous than a toxic spill, which confines itself to the original spill and the downwind/downstream plumes. A mistake in a gene, once allowed into the wild, can spread across the entire planet."
Genetically-modified food is produced by companies such as Monsanto (how many of its scientists do you think drive a hybrid?). Despite a number of tests, the food created by these gene-spliced crops are considered a failure. It consistently makes animals ill, increases liver toxicity, and damages kidneys. What's the incentive to grow this food? What's the incentive to eat it?
In our dash to trademark the very building blocks of our food supply, companies experimenting with "upgrading" crops may have irreparably damaged one of nature's most important contributors. Instead of approaching famine from a balanced perspective, corporations have patented the right to subsist. If Einstein's lesser-known theory is right, they have unwittingly become Shiva, the destroyer of worlds.
Wait – that was Oppenheimer. I need to stop quoting dead German physicists.
Give bees a chance. Roll back the Frankenfood and pray the bee colonies return to pollinate our way to a full stomach.
Canon Fodder is a bi-weekly analysis of politics and society.