To Bee Or Not To Be? → Washingtons Blog
To Bee Or Not To Be? - Washingtons Blog

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

To Bee Or Not To Be?

Painting by Anthony Freda:

Bees - upon which the entire human food chain rests - are suffering a sharp decline.

As the Guardian pointed out Monday:

The abundance of four common species of bumblebee in the US has dropped by 96% in just the past few decades, according to the most comprehensive national census of the insects [a three-year study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences].


Sydney Cameron, an entomologist at the University of Illinois, led a team on a three-year study of the changing distribution, genetic diversity and pathogens in eight species of bumblebees in the US.

By comparing her results with those in museum records of bee populations, she showed that the relative abundance of four of the sampled species (Bombus occidentalis, B. pensylvanicus, B. affinis and B. terricola) had declined by up to 96% and that their geographic ranges had contracted by 23% to 87%, some within just the past two decades.

Cameron's findings reflect similar studies across the world. According to the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology in the UK, three of the 25 British species of bumblebee are already extinct and half of the remainder have shown serious declines, often up to 70%, since around the 1970s. Last year, scientists inaugurated a £10m programme, called the Insect Pollinators Initiative, to look at the reasons behind the devastation in the insect population.

As the Guardian notes, bees are essential for human food production:

Bumblebees are important pollinators of wild plants and agricultural crops around the world including tomatoes and berries thanks to their large body size, long tongues, and high-frequency buzzing, which helps release pollen from flowers.

Bees in general pollinate some 90% of the world's commercial plants, including most fruits, vegetables and nuts. Coffee, soya beans and cotton are all dependent on pollination by bees to increase yields. It is the start of a food chain that also sustains wild birds and animals.


Insects such as bees, moths and hoverflies pollinate around a third of the crops grown worldwide. If all of the UK's insect pollinators were wiped out, the drop in crop production would cost the UK economy up to £440m a year, equivalent to around 13% of the UK's income from farming.

The collapse in the global bee population is a major threat to crops. It is estimated that a third of everything we eat depends upon pollination by bees, which means they contribute some £26bn to the global economy.


"Pollinator decline has become a worldwide issue, raising increasing concerns over impacts on global food production, stability of pollination services, and disruption of plant-pollinator networks," wrote Cameron. "

The Guardian notes that bees are not the only pollinators which are declining:

But the insects, along with other crucial pollinators such as moths and hoverflies, have been in serious decline around the world since the last few decades of the 20th century. It is unclear why, but scientists think it is from a combination of new diseases, changing habitats around cities, and increasing use of pesticides.

The Guardian points to some of the potential causes of bee decline:

Parasites such as the bloodsucking varroa mite and viral and bacterial infections, pesticides and poor nutrition stemming from intensive farming methods.

As Fast Company pointed out last month:

A leaked EPA document reveals that the agency allowed the widespread use of a bee-toxic pesticide, despite warnings from EPA scientists.

The document, which was leaked to a Colorado beekeeper, shows that the EPA has ignored warnings about the use of clothianidin, a pesticide produced by Bayer that mainly is used to pre-treat corn seeds. The pesticide scooped up $262 million in sales in 2009 by farmers, who also use the substance on canola, soy, sugar beets, sunflowers, and wheat, according to Grist.

The leaked document (PDF) was put out in response to Bayer's request to approve use of the pesticide on cotton and mustard. The document invalidates a prior Bayer study that justified the registration of clothianidin on the basis of its safety to honeybees:

Clothianidin’s major risk concern is to nontarget insects (that is, honey bees). Clothianidin is a neonicotinoid insecticide that is both persistent and systemic. Acute toxicity studies to honey bees show that clothianidin is highly toxic on both a contact and an oral basis. Although EFED does not conduct RQ based risk assessments on non-target insects, information from standard tests and field studies, as well as incident reports involving other neonicotinoids insecticides (e.g., imidacloprid) suggest the potential for long-term toxic risk to honey bees and other beneficial insects.

The EPA is still allowing the use of Clothianidin to this day. And see this and this.

And as I've previously pointed out:

To recap: bees are fed junk food totally different from what bees naturally eat with very little nutritional content, taken out of their normal natural environment and shoved into trucks, and then driven all over the nation.

The poor nutrition, exposure to numerous pesticides (and genetically modified foods), and stressful condition of being constantly trucked all over the country are hurting the bees. Why do beekeepers do it? Because high-fructose corn syrup and soy protein are cheap junk, and because the widespread use of pesticides coupled with trucking bees around the country is the low-cost industrial farming business model.

The bottom line is that raising and using bees to pollinate crops in a way that won't kill so many bees will be more expensive ... thus driving up food prices.
There is also evidence that genetically modified crops might be killing bees ... or at least weakening them so that they are more susceptible to disease. See this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this and this.

And as Agence France-Presse notes, inbreeding may be weakening the bees.

(On a side note, no one has yet asked whether silver iodide or other compounds used in weather modification affect bees. They may not, but someone should test the bees for such compounds and their metabolites so that we can rule out them out as a cause of colony collapse.)

Albert Einstein reportedly said:
If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination … no more men!
That might have been a slight exaggeration, but Einstein was right: If we kill off the bees, we will be in big trouble.

There are also reports of birds and fish mysteriously dying world-wide. While these may or may not be connected with the collapse of bee populations, it is a sign that all is not right with the world.

As I wrote two years ago:

First the frogs started disappearing.

Then the bees started disappearing.

Now, its birds. According to CBC, tens of millions of birds are disappearing across North America.

According to the Seattle Times:

Pelicans suffering from a mysterious malady are crashing into cars and boats, wandering along roadways and turning up dead by the hundreds across the West Coast, from southern Oregon to Baja California, Mexico, bird-rescue workers say.

Frogs and bees are so different from people that they are easier to ignore. But birds are larger, more complicated, warm-blooded animals, and thus closer to us biologically.

People will be in real trouble unless we figure out why the amphibians, bees and birds are dying.


  1. Another factor in problems for pollinators is diversity. Like us they need to eat all the time they are about - but most plants bloom at one time and then make fruit or seed so a pollinator in an area of mono cropping is faced with feast and then famine. The honey bees are moved from crop to crop and fed sugar water in between crops. Native pollinators have to get their food in one local area.

    Mono cropping is however necessary if one wants to use large equipment to plant and harvest crops and is considered "efficient". So our whole way of growing food has become detrimental to pollinators, not just the use of pesticides and other chemicals in the environment.

    Here in Alabama I see less and less honeybees (which are not native to the Americas anyways) but I have a host of pollinators in my garden that includes native wild plants that are edible, domestic plants, and self seeding flowers that flower all summer (cleosia, cockscomb, cleome, spiderwort, zinnias, etc.) My garlic chives when they bloom are covered with at least 10 different non bee species of pollinators - some tiny, some larger, some exquisitely beautiful.

  2. Frogs, bees, birds, and bats, as well, which are dying at frightening rates in N America. Bats which are also pollinators. Bats can consume up to 80% of their weight in insects, per night — vital for the health of ecosystems.

    Good observations by Kathy, above. Large scale mono cropping is taking over vast swaths of arable land which, in a natural state, would sustain a much broader range of species.

    I should think, though, that there ought to be sufficient, existing data, from various sources, today, that would provide important clues as to the factor[s] behind bee colony collapse.

    I live in Paris, home to an astonishing variety of plant and animal species, where pesticides are outlawed for public health reasons. In the mid-1980s, a worker at the Paris Opera returned from the countryside with some empty beehives in his car. He asked permission from the administration to store the hives temporarily on the roof of the Opera house. Within days, they were swarming with bees! — This is how the Paris municipal apiculture program began. Beehives are now tended on roofs of a number of state monuments, producing hundreds of kilos of honey per year.

    Despite what was then a heavily polluted city, bees have flocked to the urban environment, in contrast to their relatively poorer survival rates in rural, agricultural areas in which monoculture is widely practiced, with accompanied use of a broad range of pesticides.

    So, while pesticides and transport-stress may be taking a toll on N American bee colonies, I agree with Kathy that dwindling diversity amongst plant and insect / animal species ought to be considered a prime suspect, along with chemical agents, in the effort to understand what is harming bee populations.


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