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Monday, April 30, 2007

Pollinating Honey Bees Are Dying Off in Droves as Entomologists Grope Around in the Dark for the Cause

"If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man."
-- Albert Einstein

Beekeeping is big business in America and Europe but not for the obvious reason. Bees are raised in large colonies not for their honey but rather to pollinate crops. Besides, cheaper imports from China and Argentina have pretty much put most honey producers in the United States out of business. In Deutschland, eighty per cent of the honey consumed domestically is imported.

Now, farm-raised honey bees (Apis mellifera) are inexplicably abandoning their hives never to be seen again. Researchers believe that the bees are either too weak or too disoriented to find their way back home.

The disaster was first detected last autumn by beekeepers in the eastern United States who christened the phenomenon as Fall Dwindle Disease. Since then it has spread to the West Coast and to Deutschland, Angleterre, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece. (See photo above of a European honey bee extracting nectar from an aster.)

Now dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), it has claimed an estimated sixty per cent of the bees on the East Coast and seventy per cent of those on the West Coast. All totaled, an estimated twenty-five per cent of the 2.4 million bees raised commercially have died since last autumn. Deutschland also has lost about a quarter of its bees.

Reports in the media are not exactly clear, but it appears that most of the bees that are dying are honey bees. They are not, however, the only commercially farmed pollinators. For instance, the alfalfa leafcutter bee is raised to pollinate alfalfa in the western part of the United States and Canada while bumblebees are used to pollinate greenhouse tomatoes and other crops. In England, however, bumblebees have been in decline for a number for years.

The corpses of those left behind in the hives contain as many as five or more viruses as well as fungal infections. This has in turn led researchers to hypothesize that their immune systems have been suppressed in some unknown fashion.

Bees from other colonies, wax moths, and hive beetles, who normally scavenge abandoned hives for honey and pollen, are staying away and this suggests that there is something toxic inside the hives.

Under appreciated and even looked down upon as pests by the uneducated, bees are one of the wonders of creation. Not only do they serve as a model of political and social cooperation, but they are indispensable for life on earth.

Pollination is a fairly complex affair but it is generally divided into biotic, which accounts for a whopping eighty per cent of the total, and abiotic. Biotic pollination is performed by bees, wasps, ants, beetles, moths, butterflies, flies, bats, birds, and mammals, such as bears, who scatter seeds through their excrement.

Abiotic pollination, which accounts for the remaining twenty per cent, consists of the fertilization of grasses, conifers, and deciduous trees by the wind and aquatic plants by water. Of this total, ninety-eight per cent is done by the wind and two per cent by water.

It is commercially farmed honey bees, however, that perform the lion's share of biotic pollination. In the United States, one-third of agricultural crops are pollinated by honey bees. These include most fruits, vegetables, and nuts which when combined are worth between fifteen and twenty-five billion dollars a year.

This, quite naturally, requires an enormous number of bees. For instance, one-million hives are required to pollinate more than half a million acres of almond trees in California. (See photo above.) Maine's blueberries require fifty-thousand hives, and New York State's apples need at least thirty-thousand hives.

In Deutschland, honey bees are responsible for pollinating crops valued at $3.41 billion. "The honey bee is, after cows and pigs, the third most important animal in agricultural terms," Burkhard Schricker of the Free University in Berlin told Deutsche Welle on April 26th. (See "German Beekeepers Fighting for the Future.")

The impact of CCD on wild bees, which are native to America as opposed to honey bees that are a seventeenth century import from Europe, is unknown. They are, arguably, of even greater value to life on this planet than commercially farmed bees and if something were to happen to them the consequences would indeed be catastrophic.

"If that (the pollination of wild plants) didn't happen any more there would be soil erosion and no more feed for our animals," Schricker added. "In just a few years the landscape wouldn't be green anymore, but brown."

The impact of CCD therefore cannot be underestimated. "We are extremely alarmed," Penn State entomologist Diana Cox-Foster told The Independent on March 1st. (See "Species Under Threat: Honey, Who Shrunk the Bee Population?") "It (CCD) is one of the most alarming insect diseases ever to hit the United States and it has the potential to devastate the U.S. beekeeping industry. In some ways it may be to the insect world what foot-and-mouth disease was to livestock in England."

Many years ago, Albert Einstein uttered an even direr prediction. "If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left," he predicted. "No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man."

While bees in both America and Europe have faced threats before, such as the varroa destructor from Asia (See photo below) and the African honey bee, they were mere child's play compared to CCD. Most troubling of all, scientists do not know what is causing the deaths.

Perplexed entomologists on both sides of the Atlantic have looked at all the usual suspects, such as commercial and residential development, deforestation, the wide scale use of antibiotics and pesticides, the growing of monocultures, and bee predators, but they so far have been unable to come up with anything concrete.

Consequently, they are being forced to expand their inquiries into unchartered waters. For example, the Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group, of which Cox-Foster is a member, theorizes that bees could be suffering from a deadly sexually transmitted disease (STD) similar to AIDS. On the other hand, Manfred Hederer, president of the Deutschen Berufs und Erwerbs Imkerbunds (DBIB), thinks that the bees could be dying as the result of some unknown toxin. (See Der Spiegel, April 16, 2007, "Werden Bienen tot telefoniert?")

Hans Hinrich Kaatz of Martin Luther Universitat Halle-Wittenberg in Sachsen-Anhalt blames genetically modified (GM) crops. Between 2001-2004, he led a team of researchers from Friedrich Schiller Universitat in Jena that studied the effects of genetically modified maize on honey bees. The study concluded that GM maize was not in itself toxic to the bees but it did reduce their ability to cope with parasites.

Kaatz believes that a bacterial toxin in maize may have compromised the bees' intestines and thus allowed parasites to gain entry. He admits, however, that the process could have occurred in reverse. (See Der Spiegel, March 22, 2007, "Are GM Crops Killing Bees?")

The fact that millions of hives are ferried in cages all over the country in order to pollinate one crop after another has led some researchers to hypothesize that stress is killing the bees. (See photo below of a mobile apiary.)

To put it another way, honey bees are being worked to death by moneygrubbing capitalists. This would not be surprising in light of how man has so mercilessly exploited both his fellow man and the animals for financial advancement.

"In America, they are all professional beekeepers who move around with their bees and make money by pollinating crops," Schricker told Deutsche Welle in the article cited supra. "They are not as concerned with the well-being of their bees. That is, there is not the same degree of care and supervision. Here, we almost look after every single colony." (See photo below of a German beekeeper attending to his hive.)

Raising large numbers of bees in colonies may also lead to a reduction in the available gene pool which in turn could threaten the species. That is at least the opinion of Juergen Tautz of Universitat Wurzburg who points out that CCD is virtually unknown in Turkey where bees are farmed less intensely.

Joe DeRisi of the University of California's San Francisco campus blames CCD on a fungus known as Nosema ceranae which he believes can be eventually brought under control by an antibiotic known as fumagillin.

His research was, however, quickly discounted by Penn State's Cox-Foster. "By itself, it is probably not the culprit ... but it may be one of the key players," she told the Los Angeles Times on April 26th. (See "Experts May Have Found What's Bugging the Bees.")

Finally, Jochen Kuhn of the Universitat Koblenz-Landau believes that electromagnetic radiation emitted by mobile phones could be to blame. (See "Werden Bienen tot telefoniert?" cited supra.) Although his scholarship has its share of both theoretical and methodological shortcomings, it has already attracted some supporters.

One of them is Dr. George Carlo, who conducted a study on the hazards of mobile phone use for the United States government back during the 1990s. "I am convinced the possibility is real," he told The Independent on April 17th. (See "Are Mobile Phones Wiping Out Our Bees?")

Tautz is not convinced, however. Rather, he tends to place the blame on a lethal combination of mobile phones and stress exacerbated by global warming, GM crops, and a narrower range of available food. "Aber ich bin mir sicher einem gesuden, nicht gestressten Bienenvolk kann Mobilfunk nicht anhaban," he emphasized.

In its survey of the scientific literature, The Independent notes that a Finnish study has uncovered a link between the long-term use of mobile phones and brain tumors and that a Swedish study has blamed them for killing off brain cells. Studies in both India and America also have attributed reduced sperm counts in men to mobile phones.

Concerns about so-called electronic smog are not confined to mobile phones but rather extend to Wi-Fi as well. Studies have found that individuals living near such installations are prone to headaches, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, and memory loss; there has even been some discussion of increased risks of cancer and heart disease.

The issue is taken so seriously that the Austrian Medical Association is lobbying against the installation of Wi-Fi in schools in Salzburg and elsewhere around the country. (See The Independent, April 23, 2007, "Dangers in the Airwaves: Is the Wi-Fi Revolution a Health Time Bomb?") Similar concerns have been raised in Old Blighty. (See BBC, April 28, 2007, "Wi-Fi Laptop Fears for Children.")

In addition to hand-pollination, which is both costly and labor intensive, beekeepers in America are relying in the short term on honey bees imported from Australia but it remains to be seen how long they will be able to survive in their new habitat. Because of Australia's severe drought, this might actually be a good move for the bees.

The drought Down Under is so severe that Prime Minister John Howard is threatening to ban irrigation in the continent's bread basket, the Murray-Darling basin in the southeast, if the drought does not ease within six to eight weeks. Such a move would not only mean the deaths of countless farm animals but also the collapse of crops such as rice, cotton, grapes, citrus fruits, olives, and almond trees.

Like most of the political establishment and capitalist media in America, Howard and his cronies have long maintained that climate change is a hoax. After ignoring the situation for six years, he is now alternately championing nuclear power and stoicism. "This (the drought) is very much in the lap of the gods," he told The Independent on April 20th. (See "Australia's Epic Drought: The Situation Is Grim.")

That is, of course, pure baloney. As Friedrich Nietzsche and other have pointed out, man is what he has made of himself and the same can surely be said of the damage that he has inflicted upon the animals and Mother Earth. It is therefore clear that conditions are only going to deteriorate further unless the human race gets serious about drastically reducing its carbon footprint.

If answers are not found soon to both global warming and CCD, the price of food, already sky-high, can be expected to go through the roof and this will sans doute lead to mass starvation and hunger. Unfortunately, the use of maize and other food crops in order to power automobiles is only exacerbating both climate change and the price of food. (See Environmental News Network, April 26, 2007, "Dutch Consider Tough Biofuels Criteria.")

With the food supply for both humans and animals, both pets and livestock, already severely compromised by the widespread use of unhealthy preservatives and even poisonous ingredients, some nutritionists are recommending that consumers eat only organically-grown products and avoid all canned foods. While that is no doubt an option for both the rich and the bourgeoisie, it is beyond the means of the poor and working class.

The difficulties faced by individuals and families forced to rely upon governmental assistance for their daily sustenance was recently brought to national attention when Oregon Governor Theodore R. Kulongoski and Connecticut State Senator Jonathan Harris participated in the food stamp challenge. (See The New York Times, April 22, 2007, "Governor to Try a Food Stamp-Size (sic) Budget.")

While it remains to be seen what steps Europe will be willing to take in order to combat CCD, it is doubtful that anything serious will be undertaken in America where the hazards of global warming, the wide scale use of pesticides, and genetically modified crops are shrugged off without debate.

As far as mobile phones are concerned, the public has become addicted to them and their manufacturers are making money hand over fist from their sale. If individuals do not care about their own brain cells they certainly are not about to give much thought to the demise of honey bees.

Photos: John Stevens of Wikipedia (European honey bee), California Department of Food and Agriculture (bees and almond trees), Scott Bauer of USDA (varroa mite), Wikipedia (mobile apiary), and Deutsche Welle (German beekeeper).