Last year around this time, Scientific American warned that if bees continue vanishing at the rate they’re going, then fruits and vegetables will likely become the food of kings. Only recently did I watch the Nature special released a year prior (’08), The Silence of the Bees (which can be watched for free in its entirety here), which does a pretty good job covering the possible causes of the CCD (community collapse disorder) of the world’s honeybee population: (1) fatigue from being transported over long distances for commercial pollination, (2) neonicotinoid pesticides, (3) malnutrition, (4) mites & parasites, (5) IAPV, or Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus, (6) some kind of immune system suppression caused by a virus like AIDS in humans.
In the Scientific American article (4/09), “Solving the Mystery of the Vanishing Bees”, the researchers are confident that it’s likely some combination of the above, with no easy fix in sight:
“Bees suffering from CCD tend to be infested with multiple pathogens, including a newly discovered virus, but these infections seem secondary or opportunistic — much in the way pneumonia kills a patient with AIDS. The picture now emerging is of a complex condition that can be triggered by different combinations of causes. There may be no easy remedy to CCD. It may require taking better care of the environment and making long-term changes to our beekeeping and agricultural practices.” (p 42)
Pesticides have been getting nastier over the years, but healthy bee colonies sometimes have higher levels of toxic chemicals than colonies suffering from CCD. And as the Nature documentary points out, organic beekeepers are witnessing as much CCD in areas where there are no pesticides at all. So it may be that malnutrition has played a strong role in eroding the bees’ immune system:
“Honeybees no longer have the same number or variety of flowers available to them because we humans have tried to ‘neaten’ our environments. We have, for example, planted huge expanses of crops without weedy, flower-filled borders or fencerows. We maintain large green lawns free of any ‘weeds’ such as clover and dandelions. Even our roadsides and parks reflect our desire to keep things neat and weed-free. But to bees and other pollinators, green lawns look like deserts.” (p 43)
Perhaps malnutrition, in conjunction with pesticides, has made the bees susceptible to the alarming virus found in most of the sick colonies examined: the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV). Though it could be the other way around, with CCD already in place making the bees prone to the IAPV infection.
There is a new documentary available in the U.K., The Vanishing of the Bees, and the U.S. version (narrated by Ellen Page) will be released this October. I’ll have to watch it, if only to get even more depressed. One thing is certain: if the honeybees continue vanishing at this rate, and we don’t come up with a viable alternative to natural pollination, we’ll all be living on rice, corn, and wheat by the year 2035 — and many people much sooner than that.