Mysterious collapse of honeybee populations threatens national food supply

Wednesday, March 21, 2007 by: Christian Evans
Tags: honeybees, pollinators, food supply

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The honeybee population in the United States is currently suffering a devastating collapse. Honeybees are flying off in search of pollen and nectar and simply never returning to their colonies. Have they all been kidnapped by mad beekeepers, or is something more frightening occurring with the pollinators in our ecosystem?

During the final three months of 2006, a distressing number of honeybee colonies began to diminish from the United States, and beekeepers all over the country have reported unprecedented losses. According to scientists, the domesticated honeybee population has declined by about 50% in the last 50 years.

Reports of similar losses to the honeybee population have been documented before in beekeeping literature, but are widely believed to have occurred at this scale previously only at a regional level. With outbreaks recorded as far back as 1896, this is regarded as the first national honeybee epidemic in U.S. history.

The phenomenon, referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), is not yet well understood. Even the existence of the disorder remains in dispute. Nevertheless, what cannot be denied is that a shortage of honeybees in the continental U.S. has affected cropowners from California to the New England states.

"There are shortages [like this] that pop up from time to time," said Claire Kremen, a conservation biologist at Princeton University. "Whether there are more [shortages] than there were 20 years ago, one would guess yes, as there are fewer bees to go around, but it's not well documented."

Subsequent investigations suggest these outbreaks of unexplained colony collapse were experienced by beekeepers for at least the last two years. Are the honeybees dying in the fields they pollinate, or do they simply become too exhausted and disoriented to find their way back home?

Why honeybees are the invisible link to an abundant food supply

Whatever the reason, why should we care so much? Why should it matter at all to Americans?

When entire bee populations seem to disappear or die out in alarming numbers, the ramifications can be astounding. Bee pollination, which most farmers depend on, is responsible for as much as 30% of the U.S. food supply.

"Every third bite we consume in our diet is dependent on a honeybee to pollinate that food," said Zac Browning, vice president of the American Beekeeping Federation.

A Cornell University study has estimated that honeybees annually pollinate more than $14 billion worth of seeds and crops in the United States. These include such diverse food sources as almond blossoms, pumpkins, cucumbers, raspberries, avocados, and alfalfa. Unless something is done to protect the honeybee population soon, many fruits and vegetables may disappear from the food chain.

"The sudden and unexplained loss of honeybee populations is an early warning sign for coming disruptions in modern agriculture," explained Mike Adams, executive director of the Consumer Wellness Center non-profit group (www.ConsumerWellness.org). "If we continue to lose honeybees at this rate, we may find ourselves in a dire food supply emergency that will not be easily solved," Adams said.

"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," said Maryann Frazier, a senior extension associate in the Department of Entomology at Pennsylvania State University's College of Agricultural Sciences.

"Since the beginning of the year, beekeepers from all over the country have been reporting unprecedented losses. 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," she said.

Honeybees are killed by synthetic chemicals

Scientists, for now, have primarily attributed the honeybee decline to diseases spread as a result of mites and other parasites as well as the spraying of crops with pesticides. It may also result from the treatment of forests, rangelands and even suburban areas to control a wide variety of pests.

"There is no question that the extremely irresponsible use of synthetic chemicals in modern farming practices is significantly contributing to this devastating drop in honeybee populations," said Mike Adams. "The more chemicals we spray on the crops, the more poisoned the pollinators become. And the fact that honeybees are now simply disappearing in huge numbers is a strong indicator that a key chemical burden threshold has been crossed. We may have unwittingly unleashed an agricultural Chernobyl."

In order to deal with this devastation, a newly formed CCD working group has been organized in hope of finding a solution to the dwindling honeybee population. According to the CCD mandate, the group will explore "the cause or causes of honeybee colony collapse and finding appropriate strategies to reduce colony loss in the future."

Comprised of university faculty researchers, state regulatory officials, cooperative extension educators and industry representatives, the working group hopes to develop management strategies and recommendations for this epidemic. Participating organizations include the USDA/ARS, the Florida Department of Agriculture, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Pennsylvania State University, and Bee Alert, Inc., a technology transfer company affiliated with the University of Montana.

Research involving the value of honeybees to agriculture could be beneficial to both the beekeeper and the grower. The knowledge formed from such research maximizes the likelihood of finding answers that will aid beekeepers in promoting good health for honeybees within the pollination industry. It should also keep the grower well informed about the process of pollination and the relative damage of different pesticides to honeybee populations.

A detailed, up-to-date report on Colony Collapse Disorder can be found on the Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium Web site at http://www.maarec.org

The pesticide link to honeybee populations

Pesticides, specifically neonicotinioid pesticides, including imidacloprid, clothianiden and thiamethoxam, poison the bee while it is in the process of collecting nectar and pollen. The poisoning may occur when the material is ingested, or it may be transported to the hive where it poisons other bees in the colony.

According to a recent report, "Pesticides in Relation to BeeKeeping and Crop Pollination, even organic insecticides -- the chlorinated hydrocarbons, organophosphates, and carbamates -- vary in their toxicity and are not recommended."

Pesticides can also damage wild bees, but the toxicity level of a specific insecticide to honeybees and wild bees is not always the same. Even among wild bees, some materials are more toxic to one species than to another.

According to the CCD report, "If bees are eating fresh or stored pollen contaminated with these chemicals at low levels, they may not cause mortality but may impact the bee's ability to learn or make memories. This could cause the colonies to dwindle and eventually die."

So far a few common management factors have been found, but no common environmental agents or chemicals have been identified. There is no one substance currently being branded as the culprit.

Not limited to the United States, this problem is complex and the ramifications are alarming. Such a loss to the honeybee population can occur in other countries that have highly developed agricultural infrastructures.

This only begs an even deeper question for society to answer: If we are so dependent on honeybee pollination for our food supply, what happens when the bees are wiped out? Mike Adams calls our current food production situation a "food bubble" and explains that as mankind disrupts nature and destroys sustainable ecosystems, the natural backlash will impact the food supply first. "Following a century of synthetic chemical poisoning of planet Earth, the human race is in for a rather abrupt population correction. The collapse of pollinators is merely a sign of things to come. Humans will either find a way to live in balance with the planet, or they may ultimately face the same fate as the honeybees."

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