Thursday, June 21, 2007

Colonies collapsing

"But I think we’re the ones suffering from Colony Collapse Disorder. Because although nobody really knows for sure what’s killing the bees, it’s not al-Qaeda, and it’s not God doing some of his Old Testament shtick, and it’s not Winnie the Pooh. It’s us. It could be from pesticides, or genetically modified food, or global warming, or the high-fructose corn syrup we started to feed them. Recently it was discovered that bees won’t fly near cell phones — the electromagnetic signals they emit might screw up the bees navigation system, knocking them out of the sky. So thanks guy in line at Starbucks, you just killed us. It’s nature’s way of saying, 'Can you hear me now?'"

-Bill Maher
Many readers will be at least a little familiar with news of the global collapse of European honeybee (Apis mellifera) populations. I've talked with friends and acquaintances who take this development very seriously, while others who dismiss it offhand. Whatever their attitude, however, most people possess only a superficial understanding of colony collapse disorder (CCD). As with most "natural" declines, the science of the situation is more complex than our major media outlets report.

Consider the following wrinkle. The European honeybee, the species in question, is not native to the United States. While many areas of agricultural production will be adversely affected by their collapse, some entomologists have pointed out that populations of native bee species may rebound as the niche they originally filled (as pollinators) opens up again. On the other hand, those native bee species are not domesticated, and therefore will not pollinate crops as efficiently as European honeybees do. No surprise there; what's good for biodiversity is rarely good for industrialized agriculture.

I'm very curious to learn what (or what confluence of causes) is responsible for the collapse. While I’m pleased to see celebrities like Bill Maher making a popular fuss about an environmental dilemma, the media only chose to issue a red alert regarding this particular environmental issue because it could lead to diminishing economic returns. Given this agrinomics bias, the science side of the news story is generally glossed over or grossly simplified.

Fortunately, there are folks offering more comprehensive summations. Link over to Bioephemera for an excellent roundup of the situation (and one of Cicada's lovely paintings, to boot).


Tree said...

Hi HH,

I'm one of those people that believes this is a serious issue. I thought it an interesting coincidence to find this post because just recently, a woman I work with started keeping bees on her farm as she and her husband are also concerned. These folks are pretty serious about a sustainable lifestyle; I really admire all that they do.
By the way, she and her husband signed up for a class on how to keep bees, she said it sold out very quickly and was standing room only, so they aren't the only ones trying to reverse the tide, so to speak.

bioephemera said...

Thanks for the plug. :) Great point about native vs. non-ntive species, BTW! I added something about that into the comments on my post. Native bees are of course my favorite: if only crops could be pollinated by millions of buzzing, bumbling bumbles, I'd be thrilled. (but of course then honey would be incredibly scarce. . . darn).

Sunil said...

I keep looking out for the theory behind the collapse - but I have yet to run into something plausible. Interesting how people/media are still concerned about the commercial/economic angle when it portends more...

Chris Rywalt said...

When I'm curious about any topic, I always turn to The Straight Dope. The answer is almost always there and almost always trustworthy.

There was a Mailbag article recently about Colony Collapse Disorder. Quick summary: European honeybee populations have been suddenly dying off (and then bouncing back) since the 1890s and no one's sure why.

In other words: It's all hype. Again.

Hungry Hyaena said...


That's encouraging to read. I'm happy to learn of folks like your friends and I hope their bees thrive.


Well, yes and no. Entomologists know about the flux - it is another angle the media is reluctant to explore as it complicates the quick read - but the extent of this current decline is far more wide ranging geographically.

It isn't simply hype. If that were the case, we wouldn't have the fruit growers of California making such a row or the world's entomologists wringing their hands.

That said, everything is hype, I suppose, if you take the long view. Humanity itself will die in a relatively short time, so really all the fuss about global warming or the horror of genocide is hype, too. But shrugging and saying it's "just natural" is one step away from nihilism, as I see it.