by Annie Spiegelman
Though worldwide honey bee health has been on the decline since the 1980's, it wasn't until the fall of 2006 that beekeepers nation wide began noticing honey bee colonies disappearing in large numbers without known reason. This syndrome, named Colony Collapse Disorder or CCD, is characterized by the disappearance of adult honey bees from the hive, leaving the newborns to fend for themselves. During the winter of 2006, some beekeepers reported losing 30-90 percent of their hives. Though some loss is expected during the winter, this loss was much higher than normal. It's no secret human mothers, on occasion, fantasize about becoming a deadbeat mom and catching a one-way flight, alone, to the tropics, packing only a swim suit, lipstick, novel and Ipod. Honey bees, on the other hand, actually like the constant chitter-chatter of a buzzing brood. Queen bees are usually fiercely maternal. It's unlikely they would abandon their hive even on a really bad day of motherhood.
So far CCD has been reported in thirty-six states around the country. Beekeepers are facing bankruptcy while farmers are substantially losing crops and hope. According to the USDA, the direct value of honey bee pollination to U. S. agriculture is more than $15 billion dollars. It's now estimated that 1/3 of bees in the U.S. have disappeared. Italy, Poland, Portugal, Spain, Central and South America have also reported a mass exodus of bees, and recently beekeepers in Croatia reported that 5 million bees disappeared in less than 48 hours. If honeybees continue to disappear at this rate, some scientists predict we could lose all honey bees by 2035.
Researchers globally are still trying to pin down the cause or causes of this mysterious ailment. Most entomologists agree that a combination of factors are involved: exposure to pesticides, industrialization, urbanization and disruption of habitat, water pollution, climate change, the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus, the Varroa mite and literally trucking bee hives around the world to pollinate crops. However, the curious part of CCD is this: According to Eric Mussen, apiary specialist at the University of California in Davis, "The first documented cases of CCD occurred in the late 1800's, long before modern day agricultural practices could play a part."
The good news is 75% of US beekeepers have actually never noticed a problem with their hives. Among the remaining 25% who have reported some apparent CCD like symptoms, the severity of the problem has ranged anywhere from a slight reduction in the number of workers to complete collapse of the hive. Many of these apiary operations have been through CCD and recovered, which suggests that resistance may be growing within the bee population.
Why should we care so much about the bees? Don't killer bees stalk humans for half a mile just like in the movies? Mea McNeil, President of the Marin County Beekeepers Association, reminds us, "Most bees are beneficial, fuzzy, shy vegetarians, not the aggressive, meat eating wasps that ruin your outdoor dining. We should care deeply about the disappearing honey bee if we like to eat food." Honey bees (Apis mellifera) are "polylectic" which means they feed on just about anything that's blooming. Besides gathering nectar to produce honey, honey bees pollinate agricultural crops, home gardens, orchards and wildlife habitat. As they travel from blossom to blossom in search of nectar, pollen (male sperm) sticks to their furry body and is transferred to another flowering blossom enabling it to swell into a ripened fruit. Bees have been doing this for nearly 100 million years. Almonds, avocadoes, blueberries, cantaloupes, cherries, cranberries, cucumbers, watermelon and many other best-selling crops all rely on honey bees for pollination. It's estimated that about one-third of the human diet is derived from insect-pollinated plants and three-quarters of all plants on the planet depend on insects or animals for pollination.
Diana Cox-Foster, Professor of Entomology at Pennsylvania State University is leading a team of top researchers, scientists, experts and even medical doctors to analyze the honey bee's DNA for pathogens. This impressive assortment of investigators aptly named "The Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group" has quickly and proudly become the CSI of agricultural forensic autopsies. What they're finding is that we're in "a crisis on top of a crisis." It seems bee autopsies are showing that the bees are not suffering so much from one particular ailment as from just about every ailment: wing virus, sac-brood virus, black-queen-cell-virus and also various fungi and bacteria. The bee's immune systems are severely weakened if not collapsed.
"Pollinators are canaries in the coal mine, and their disappearance is a referendum on the state of our environment-a reminder of the brilliant and frightening interdependence of our ecosystem," says Dennis vanEngelsdorp, Acting State Apiarist for Pennsylvania's Department of Agriculture. "Part of the problem is NDD: Nature Deficit Disorder. Let's reconnect to nature again. The cure is making meadows not lawns. 11% percent of all US pesticide use was in lawns. Lawns are sterile, useless bio-systems. And, think about getting a beehive!"
Marshall's Honey Farm, where I live in Northern California, is offering workshops for 'WannaBee Keepers" this spring. They also offer 2-hour tours to educate the community on bees, beekeeping, honey and honey production. "Homeowners can also help by inviting a beekeeper to install a beehive on their land. If there is room for at least 6 hives, we will install and manage the hives in those backyard locations. We pay a yard-rent in honey. 6 pounds per hive," says owner Helene Marshall. Check with your local beekeeping association if beekeepers in your area are offering these services.
Syndicated eco-columnist and Master Gardener Annie Spiegelman offers practical tips on organic gardening, composting and planting along with guidance and gripes on marriage, motherhood and that so-called 'having it all.' As your cynically optimistic horticultural host, Spiegelman offers positive reinforcement and moral support from a gardener who's made all the mistakes, and has lived to tell how to make peace with snails, fungi, bacteria and...your boyfriend.
Visit Annie at www.dirtdiva.com
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