Friday, October 19, 2007

(PROGRESS) What Was Behind the Honey Bee Wipeout?

Honeybees: the new canary in the coal mine?
What Was Behind the Honey Bee Wipeout?
by Gina Covina

If we listed beehive collapses of the last 20 years, this winter's would not make the top five. The world's honeybee population had already declined by half in 30 years. Previously, winter losses of 5%-10% of a beekeeper's colonies were the norm.
Then mites jumped from other species to honeybees. First tracheal mites in the '80s, then varroa mites, which carry 25 different viruses, in the '90s. The mites increased yearly losses to 25% by the late '80s and now 40% or higher.

For tracheal mites, beekeepers developed nontoxic preventive treatments. In the mid-'90s, American beekeepers began using chemicals in beehives. European keepers, who have had the varroa mite longer, use Integrated Pest Management.

Another challenge is a fungus, nosema, that's tolerated by healthy bees but not weakened ones. Add in hive beetles, an African native recently found in Florida. Aggressive African honeybees attack the beetle, but European bees, bred to be docile, let it overrun the hive.

Cell phone interference has been proposed since in the presence of high-frequency electromagnetic radiation, tested bees were unable to find their way home. However, no bee taken from its hive for the first time, as was done in the study, could have. Bees navigate primarily by landmarks; their first few excursions are short orientation flights.

Thirty years ago growers relied on native insects and local honeybees for most crops. Now apples and blueberries rely on relocated honeybees for 90% of their pollination, peaches 50%, and oranges 30%. Farmers won't bother planting squash or melons if they can't get beehives in place by bloom time. One third of all US crops depend on honeybees.

It takes most of this country's commercially operated pollination colonies to cover California's almond monoculture -- over 800,000 Central Valley acres, mile after mile of bare soil and almond trees, that support no life but the target crop. It's not just almonds; most crops are grown on factory farms.

Being pollinators for industrial-scale agriculture for much of the year, when bees are out foraging they are likely to ingest a monocultured diet -- nothing but almond, then nothing but apple, then only watermelon.

While the bees roll down the highways or wait in yards, they're fed a high fructose corn syrup with soy protein -- not any more nutritious for bees than for humans. And genetically modified corn and soy contain bacterial insecticide. Are bees not insects? While Bt corn pollen does not kill healthy bees or brood reared on it, Bt pollen reduces the number of bees in hives already weakened by varroa mites.

The country's best bee forage habitat was the Midwest. There marginal areas were left to asters and goldenrods that are high-quality pollen sources in late summer when bees need to raise the generation that will overwinter. Now even the edges grow GM corn as a source for ethanol.

Bees are exposed to pesticides used on their forage crops as well. And very hot weather, more usual as climate changes, can damage the protein content of pollen, decreasing its food value for bees.

The difference with this winter's losses is not having a definite cause. Malnutrition might be the culprit. The only beekeepers doing substantially better are the very small percentage practicing non-chemical mite control coupled with little or no trucking or artificial feeding.

JJS: Way before factory farming, before the Industrial Revolution, in English law (and American), farmers enjoyed environmental rights. If your neighbor’s fire burned your field, if his dam flooded your garden, he owed you compensation. The court ruling which created limited liability for corporations changed all that (why corporations in the UK are called “limiteds”; they’re called “corporations” because they originally were public “bodies”). As more of us see Earth as commons, we’ll reform liability limits to end corporate license and require perpetrators to bear the burden of proof -- want to alter nature? prove it’s safe. Then our world becomes much healthier for humans and our bee buddies, too.


Jeffery J. Smith runs the Forum on Geonomics.

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At 4:22 AM , Blogger MrK said...

I think this article underlines the need for small farms (smaller than these industrial scale farms), which create a greater biodiversity.


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