Summers have been more silent in recent years because the bee population has been falling at an alarming rate – in Britain it fell by a third between last year and this, and right across Europe the decline is similar and disturbing. In Italy, bee mortality is running at nearly 50% and nobody knows quite why.
There’s a name for it – Colony Collapse Disorder – but that’s pretty well as far as our understanding goes. And there’s the tragedy which could become a disaster, because the hardworking, humble bee is not just useful – it’s essential.
Bees are vital to the pollination of over a quarter of all the crops grown, 250,000 flowering plants rely on bees for pollination, and they increase the yields of nearly a hundred staple crops like apples, blueberries and cucumbers. These crops would produce up to a third less if they weren’t visited by bees.
The Honey Doesn’t Matter – The Bees Do
Most people think bees are kept for their honey. They aren’t, at least in the USA. Until 2007, America’s 1000 commercial bee keepers kept bees for pollination, and those bees were trucked up and down the country on the say of bee brokers who negotiated pollination terms with farmers. A million hives travelled to LA every year to pollinate the almond trees.
And then the bees began to die. And die. And die. Some blame the varroa mite, which sucks blood from infected bees, damaging already compromised immune systems. Some blame ‘stacking’ – the way that farmers stack herbicide on pesticide on insecticide: and there is some evidence that powerful new pesticides do interfere with the bees’ complex navigation systems. And some blame trucking: stressed bees, travelling long distances packed together, forced to work against their body clocks … doesn’t it sound like a recipe for an epidemic? And yet still Federal funding supports research into discovering whether artificial pheromones can be used to kid the worker bees that there are more larvae in the hive than there really are, so they will travel further, pollinate more crops – and die of exhaustion.
Global Epidemic of Bee Deaths
It’s not just a problem over here or over there. It’s a problem everywhere. Before the first Gulf War there were nearly half a million beehives in Iraq today there are less than 20,000. Citrus orchards are lying fallow without bees to pollinate them, and already poor people are poorer still without fruit, crops or honey.
We can help, locally, by planting native flowers and shrubs that bees enjoy (check local guidelines for native species in your area) and buying locally produced honey, especially organic honey as this comes from bees that seem to be slightly less prone to CCD than other bees. But without a solution to CCD, we will continue to lose bees at a phenomenal, and damaging, rate.
So President-Elect Obama, how about a few hives on the White House lawn and some substantial funding into why Colony Collapse Disorder is happening and what can be done about it? Because yours could be a surprisingly silent Presidency if we don’t do something soon.