During the final three months of 2006, a distressing number of honeybee colonies began to diminish from the United States., and beekeepers from all over the country reported unprecedented losses. With localized outbreaks recorded as far back as 1896, this is highly regarded as the first national epidemic in U.S. history. Scientists, entomologists and citizens alike continue to speculate as to the cause of this disorder, with the newest conclusions directed toward cell phone use.
Although the outbreaks are now generally believed to have been caused by a virus imported from Australian bees (a charge which Australia denies), some scientists and researchers are putting forth a new theory that the radiation given off by cell phones and other high-tech gadgets is interfering with bees' navigation systems. The signals from nearby cell phone towers are preventing the bees from finding their way back to their hives.
This phenomenon, referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), is not yet well understood; even the existence of the disorder remains in dispute.
What is known for sure about CCD is that the colony is deserted by the hive's inhabitants, with only the queen, her eggs and a few immature workers remaining. However, unlike when the hive normally is abandoned and the colony is left defenseless, it is not raided for its honey and eggs by other bees, various predators, parasites or mites. Scientists consider this to be another piece of evidence pointing to the fact that something has gone terribly wrong with the global ecosystem, and the disappearance of millions of honeybees around the world is no coincidence.
"I believe it causes something like Alzheimer's," said J.D. Hill, a commercial beekeeper from Muldrow, OK. "The bees go out and find a patch of flowers. Then they bring some of the pollen from the flower patch back to the hive and tell the other bees about it and they all then go to the flower patch. But something is disrupting their memory. They can't find their way back to the hive…if [scientists] don't get a handle on this, the economics are going to get real bad."
And yet, this shortage of honeybees in the continental U.S. has already proven to be an economic hardship on crop owners from California to the New England states, and it will most likely continue to affect even more of the American public in immeasurable ways if a solution is not found soon.
CCD has now been reported in places like Spain, Portugal, Croatia, Poland, Turkey, Germany, Italy, Greece and Switzerland, England, Wales and Scotland, although UK agriicultural authorities (including the British Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) claim there is no concrete evidence to support such a claim. However, what cannot be denied is that when entire bee populations seem to disappear or die out in alarming numbers, the ramifications can be astounding.
Nearly one-third of the food supply depends on bees
Bee pollination, on which most farmers depend, is responsible for as much as 30% of the U.S. food supply alone. 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 results of a limited study at Landau University have been reported in newspapers around the world, stating that radiation coming from cell phones may be directly responsible for the disappearance of bee populations around the globe.
However, according to the researchers of the German study its results were based on cordless phones, which work on a different type of radiation than cell phones. The study investigated the influence of electromagnetic fields on the learning ability of bees.
"It's not my fault if people misinterpret our data," said Stefan Kimmel, coauthor of the study other professors, such as Kuhn. He claims there is "no link between our tiny little study and the CCD phenomenon…If the Americans are looking for an explanation for colony collapse disorder, perhaps they should look at herbicides, pesticides and they should especially think about genetically modified crops.
"Ever since The Independent wrote their article, for which they never called or wrote to us, none of us have been able to do any of our work because all our time has been spent in phone calls and e-mails trying to set things straight. This is a horror story for every researcher to have your study reduced to this. Now we are trying to force things back to normal."
So far, it appears there is little substantial evidence to support a correlation between CCD and cell phone use. Considering the fact that cell phone use is even higher in Europe than in the U.S., wouldn't the pattern have been worse in Europe? Also, while it is true mobile phones can disrupt electronic navigation systems, these systems use magnetism to navigate; bees use polarized light.
Nailing down the cause
A CCD working group was organized recently in hope of finding a solution to the dwindling honeybee population by exploring the potential causes of the honeybee colony collapse epidemic. The group is comprised mainly of university faculty researchers, state regulatory officials, cooperative extension educators and industry representatives.
Other reported potential causes for CCD are extremely diverse and include the introduction of genetically modified crops, changing weather patterns, an increase in global warming, a proliferation in the use of pesticides and airborne chemicals, immune suppression triggered by stress, high-voltage transmission lines, environmental pollution, cheap sugar substitutes, burning fossil fuels, foreign fungi, parasites, and tracheal or varroa mites.
"There are a lot less bees than we used to have and we don't know why," said Brent Halsall, president of the Ontario Beekeepers' Association. "Everybody's got their own little pre-theory, but it's really hard to say. It could be many different factors that are causing the bees to die, or all of them together are enough to cause the problem and we just have the right set of wrong circumstances coming together."
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