Thursday, July 17, 2014

To Bee or Not to Bee...

There is a problem with honey bees in this country.  Each winter for the past ten or so, 22-30+% of them die.  This death rate has many government officials and agriculture experts quite concerned.  Bees and bee colonies have always experienced losses in the winter but the rate used to in the high teens.  This made for a stable overall population.  These current rates are causing worry because the bee population could fall to the point where it impacts our agricultural output.
Over the past few years, bee populations have been dying at a rate the U.S. government says is economically unsustainable. Honey bees pollinate plants that produce about a quarter of the food consumed by Americans, including apples, almonds, watermelons and beans, according to government reports. ~ Reuters
When the increase in colony deaths was first noticed, the causes for this were a mystery.  Thriving colonies were abruptly empty or all the bees in the colony were found dead. Scientists dubbed this phenomena Colony Collapse Disorder.  Given the importance of bees to our food supply, the same scientific community got to work trying to discern the cause for the Colony Collapse disorder.  
Over the years, several theories were hypothesised and tested.  There does not seem to be one root cause thus complicating the situation.  The contributory causes seem to be viruses, parasites, and pesticides.  There seem to be two primary causes.  First is a class of modern insecticides called neonicotinoids.  These pesticides are made by both Bayer and Monsanto and are used to increase the yield of corn and other crops. The second is a parasite called the Varroa mite which has come to the US from Asia.  Bayer and Monsanto argue it is the mites lest they lose sales in their pesticides.  Bayer also makes and sells a mite control.
In May of this year, the Harvard School for Public Health published the results of a study showing that neonicotinoids “appear to significantly harm honey bee colonies over the winter, particularly during colder winters.”  ~ Reuters
Europe is implementing a ban on neonicotinoids.  Our government is also taking actions in this regard.  Most recently, on June 20, 2014, the US Department of Agriculture announced an $8 million Conservation Resource Program that will help set aside lands to restore and provide habitats for honey bees.  
The honey bee population in the United States has been declining for decades. The number of managed U.S. honey bee colonies dropped from 6 million in 1947, to just 2.5 million today. This week, President Obama issued a memorandum directing U.S. government agencies to take additional steps to protect and restore domestic populations of pollinators, including honey bees. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Gina McCarthy will co-chair a new Pollinator Health Task Force to focus federal efforts to conduct research and take action to help pollinators recover from population losses. This includes a public education campaign to teach people ways that they can help pollinators in their own homes or businesses.  ~ Farm and Ranch Guide News
Harvard is also involved in other research that might mitigate this problem.  The School of Engineering and Applied Science has a National Science Foundation grant to develop robotic bees.  These bees would have a variety of applications of which pollinating crops would be central if no other solutions are found to eliminate the Colony Collapse Disorder.  I can only imagine the environmental consequences of unleashing millions of robot bees on the environment.  I can envision the military applications of swarms of these mini-drones armed with  toxic stingers.  I can certainly imagine the business opportunity at a $1 a bee. This YouTube video makes the future look very plausible.
In 1970, Joni Mitchell wrote a song, Big Yellow Taxi, in which she wrote these prophetic lines.
Hey farmer farmer
Put away that DDT * now
Give me spots on my apples
But leave me the birds and the bees
As bad as DDT was in it’s day, the warning should be about neonicotinoids.  Lets hope a good solution can be found to this problem before we have to rely on swarms of robotic bees.

1 comment:


    WSJ article on EPA preliminary finding that neonicotinoids is contributing to reduction in bee populations.