Worldwide Honey Bee Collapse: A Lesson in Ecology
We know what is killing the bees. Worldwide Bee Colony Collapse is not as big a mystery as the chemical companies claim. The systemic nature of the problem makes it complex, but not impenetrable. Scientists know that bees are dying from a variety of factors—pesticides, drought, habitat destruction, nutrition deficit, air pollution, global warming and so forth. The causes of collapse merge and synergize, but we know that humanity is the perpetrator, and that the two most prominent causes appear to be pesticides and habitat loss.
Biologists have found over 150 different chemical residues in bee pollen, a deadly “pesticide cocktail” according to University of California apiculturist Eric Mussen. The chemical companies Bayer, Syngenta, BASF, Dow, DuPont and Monsanto shrug their shoulders at the systemic complexity, as if the mystery were too complicated. They advocate no change in pesticide policy. After all, selling poisons to the world’s farmers is profitable.
Furthermore, wild bee habitat shrinks every year as industrial agribusiness converts grasslands and forest into monoculture farms, which are then contaminated with pesticides. To reverse the world bees decline, we need to fix our dysfunctional and destructive agricultural system.
Apis mellifera—the honey bee, native to Europe, Africa and Western Asia—is disappearing around the world. Signs of decline also appear now in the eastern honey bee, Apis cerana.
This is no marginal species loss. Honey bees—wild and domestic—perform about 80 percent of all pollination worldwide. A single bee colony can pollinate 300 million flowers each day. Grains are primarily pollinated by the wind, but the best and healthiest food—fruits, nuts and vegetables—are pollinated by bees. Seventy out of the top 100 human food crops, which supply about 90 percent of the world’s nutrition, are pollinated by bees.
Tonio Borg, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, calculates that bees “contribute more than €22 billion ($30 billion U.S. dollars) annually to European agriculture.” Worldwide, bees pollinate human food valued at more than €265 billion ($350 billion). The bee collapse is a challenge to human enterprise on the scale of global warming, ocean acidification and nuclear war. Humans could not likely survive a total bee collapse.
Worker bees (females) live several months. Colonies produce new worker bees continuously during the spring and summer, and then reproduction slows during the winter. Typically, a bee hive or colony will decline by five to 10 percent over the winter and replace those lost bees in the spring. In a bad year, a bee colony might lose 15-20 percent of its bees.
In the U.S., where bee collapse first appeared, winter losses commonly reached 30-50 percent and in some cases more. In 2006, David Hackenberg, a bee keeper for 42 years, reported a 90 percent die-off among his 3,000 hives. U.S. National Agriculture Statistics show a honey bee decline from about 6 million hives in 1947 to 2.4 million hives in 2008, a 60 percent reduction.
The number of working bee colonies per hectare provides a critical metric of crop health. In the U.S., among crops that require bee pollination, the number of bee colonies per hectare has declined by 90 percent since 1962. The bees cannot keep pace with the winter die-off rates and habitat loss.
Europe Responds, U.S. Dithers
In Europe, Asia and South America, the annual die-off lags behind the U.S. decline, but the trend is clear, and the response is more appropriate. In Europe, Rabobank reported that the annual European die-offs have reached 30-35 percent and that the colonies-per-hectare count is down 25 percent. In the 1980s, in Sichuan, China, pear orchard pesticides obliterated local bees, and farmers must now pollinate crops by hand with feather dusters.
A European Food Safety Authority scientific report determined that three widely used pesticides—nicotine-based clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiametoxam—pose “high acute risks” for bees. These neonicotinoid pesticides—used in soils, on foliage and embedded in seeds—persist at the core of the toxic pesticide cocktail found in bee hives.
A Greenpeace scientific report identifies seven priority bee-killer pesticides—including the three nicotine culprits—plus clorpyriphos, cypermethrin, deltamethrin and fipronil. The three neonicotinoids act on insect nervous systems. They accumulate in individual bees and within entire colonies, including the honey that bees feed to infant larvae. Bees that do not die outright, experience sub-lethal systemic effects, development defects, weakness and loss of orientation. The die-off leaves fewer bees and weaker bees, who must work harder to produce honey in depleted wild habitats. These conditions create the nightmare formula for bee colony collapse.
Bayer makes and markets imidacloprid and clothianidin; Syngenta produces thiamethoxam. In 2009, the world market for these three toxins reached over $2 billion. Syngenta, Bayer, Dow, Monsanto and DuPont control nearly 100 percent of the world market for genetically engineered (GE) pesticides, plants and seeds.
In 2012, a German court criminally charged Syngenta with perjury for concealing its own report showing that its genetically modified corn had killed livestock. In the U.S., the company paid out $105 million to settle a class-action lawsuit for contaminating the drinking water for more than 50 million citizens with its “gender-bending” herbicide Atrazine. Now, these corporate polluters are waging multi-million-euro campaigns to deny responsibility for bee colony collapse.
In May, the European Commission responded, adopting a two-year ban on the three neonicotinoid pesticides. Scientists will use the two years to assess the recovery rate of the bees and a longer-term ban on these and other pesticides.
Meanwhile, the U.S. dithers and supports the corporations that produce and market the deadly pesticides. In May, as European nations took action, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved the neonicotinoid pesticides, in spite of a U.S. Department of Agriculture report warning about the dangers of the bee colony collapse.
Also in May, President Obama, signed the now infamous “Monsanto Protection Act“—written by Monsanto lobbyists—that gives biotech companies immunity in federal U.S. courts from damages to people and the environment caused by their commercial compounds.
Common sense actions could restore and protect the world’s bees. Experienced bee keepers, apiculturists, farmers, the European Commission and the Greenpeace report, Bees in Decline have outlined these solutions:
- Ban the seven most dangerous pesticides
- Protect pollinator health by preserving wild habitat
- Restore ecological agriculture
Ecological farming is the over-arching new policy trend that will stabilize human food production, preserve wild habitats and protect the bees. The nation of Bhutan has led the world in adopting a 100 percent organic farming policy. Mexico has banned GE corn to protect its native corn varieties. In January, eight European countries banned GE crops, and Hungary has burned over a 1,000 acres of corn contaminated with GE varieties. In India, scientist Vandana Shiva and a network of small farmers have built an organic farming resistance to industrial agriculture over two decades.
Ecological or organic farming, of course, is nothing new. It is the way most farming has been done throughout human history. Ecological farming resists insect damage by avoiding large monocultures and preserving ecosystem diversity. Ecological farming restores soil nutrients with natural composting systems, avoids soil loss from wind and water erosion, and avoids pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
By restoring bee populations and healthier bees, ecological agriculture improves pollination, which in turn improves crop yields. Ecological farming takes advantage of the natural ecosystem services, water filtration, pollination, oxygen production and disease and pest control.
Organic farmers have advocated better research and funding by industry, government, farmers and the public to develop organic farming techniques, improve food production and maintain ecological health. The revolution in farming would promote equitable diets around the world and support crops primarily for human consumption, avoiding crops for animal food and biofuels.
The plight of the bees serves as a warning that we still may not quite understand ecology. Ecological farming is part of a larger paradigm shift in human awareness. The corporate denialists appear just like the Pope’s shrouded inquisitors in 1615, who refused to look through Galileo’s telescope to see the moons of Jupiter. Today’s denialists refuse to recognize that Earth’s systems operate within real limits. However, the state religion in this case is money, and the state religion won’t allow it. The denialists cling to the presumed right to consume, hoard, and obliterate Earth’s great bounty for private profits. But hoards of money won’t reverse extinction, restore lost soils or heal the world’s bee colonies.
A great reckoning awaits humanity if we fail to awaken from our delusions. Earth’s delicately balanced systems can reach tipping points and collapse. Bees, for example, work within a limited range of marginal returns on the energy they exert to collect nutrition for their colonies. When winter bee deaths grow from 10 percent to 50 percent, the remaining bees are weakened by toxins, and the wild habitats shrink that thin, ecological margin of energy return can be squeezed to zero. Surviving bees expend more energy than they return in honey. More bees die, fewer reach maturity and entire colonies collapse. This crisis is a lesson in fundamental ecology.
Rachel Carson warned of these systemic constraints 50 years ago. Ecologists and environmentalists have warned of limits ever since. Bee colony collapse now joins global warming, forest destruction and species extinctions among our most urgent ecological emergencies. Saving the world’s bees appears as one more necessary link in restoring Earth to ecological balance.
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