26 September 2012


Starting in 2006 and continuing into the present, the widespread disappearance of worker honeybees became so severe that it was classified as colony collapse disorder (CCD), a term with implications similar to 'epidemic' or 'plague'.  This event is of major economic and nutritional importance to humans, since honeybees pollinate many agricultural crops worldwide.    As honeybees disappear, foods become more scarce and more expensive.  There are also ecological implications, given that honeybees also play a central role in the reproduction of plants in the wild.

Multiple potential causes of CCD have been proposed, including biotic factors like mites and insect diseases, as well as stress from malnutrition, pesticides, and environmental changes.  A recent report by Reuters summarizes research that indicates two definitive causes for the collapse of honeybee colonies.  One is the widespread use of "a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids.  In the U.S. alone, these pesticides, produced primarily by the German chemical giant Bayer and knowns as 'neonics' for short, coat a massive 142 million acres o corn, wheat, soy and cotton seeds .... Research published in the prestigious journal Science shows that neonics are absorbed by the plants' vascular system and contaminate the pollen and nectar that bees encounter on their rounds.  They are a nerve poison that disorients their insect victims, and appear to damage the homing ability of bees .... Purdue University entomologists observed bees at infected hives exhibiting tremors, uncoordinated movement and convulsions, all signs of acute insecticide poisoning.

" .... But scientists believe that exposure to toxic pesticides is only one factor that has led to the decline of honey bees in recent years.  The destruction and fragmentation of bee habitats, as a result of land development and the spread of monoculture agriculture, deprives pollinators of their diverse natural food supply.  This has already led to the extinction of a number of wild bee species.  The planting of genetically modified orgamism (GMO) crops ~ some of which now contain toxic insectiides within their genetic structure ~ may also be responsible for poisoning bees and weakening their immune systems."

It is an old story, played out once more because myopic corporate interests do not let the memory of past destruction interfere with profit margins.  In the early to mid-twentieth century, the major pesticide culprit was DDT, which produced so much collateral damage to birds, wildlife, and humans that it was banned in the U.S. in 1972.  So what have the manufacturers of DDT done to avoid profit loss?  They simply export the lethal substance to third-world countries where no law exists to ban its use.

Similarly with habitat destruction ~ over the course of half a century, as small farmers have been forced by economic pressures to sell their land to ever-growing mega-corporations, crop diversity has been replaced by the species monocultures found in commercial forestry.  The more we rely on one species for food, timber, or medicine, the greater we risk disaster if a natural event like disease or climate change ravages that species.  That's why biodiversity is so important in both  agricultural and natural communities.  More species means less risk of catastrophic loss to the community as a whole.

In addition, it is important NOT to simply clear-cut vast swaths of land for seeding, but rather to employ smaller tracts, interspersed with natural plant growth along fence lines, streams, low-lying swales, and in the corners of fields.  This provides both shelter and a pathway for migration for birds, insects, and wildlife.  The importance of working with nature rather than against it is stressed by environmentalist and author Bill McKibben ~ "Past a certain point, we can't make nature conform to our industrial model.  The collapse of beehives is a warning ~ and the cleverness of a few beekeepers in figuring out hot to work with bees, not as masters but as partners, offers a clear-eyed kind of hope for many of our ecological dilemmas."

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