California Literary Review

What’s Killing the Honeybees?


November 4th, 2008 at 11:57 am

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[Photo by da100fotos]

CLR INTERVIEW: Rowan Jacobsen is an environmental writer living in Vermont. His most recent book is Fruitless Fall, an investigation into the collapse of honeybee colonies throughout the world. Below is Rowan’s interview with the California Literary Review.

Fruitless Fall by Rowan Jacobsen
Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honey Bee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis
by Rowan Jacobsen
Bloomsbury USA, 288 pp.

For those of us who weren’t paying close attention during biology class, would you give us an overview of flowers, fruit and the role of bees?

Flowers are the sexual organs of plants. Most contain both pollen (plant sperm) and ovaries. For a plant to reproduce, it needs to somehow transfer its pollen to the ovaries of another member of the same species. For hundreds of millions of years, plants used the wind to do this. It’s like Internet spam: send hundreds of millions of flyweight grains of pollen in all directions, hoping that just one or two finds its way by chance to the right ovary. Many plants, such as pine and birch trees and the dreaded ragweed, still use wind pollination.

But about a hundred million years ago, one class of plants hit upon a revolutionary idea: Why not use insects to transport the pollen instead of wind? That way, you can make much bigger, heavier, more sophisticated pollen packages. And you can make far fewer of them if you can rely on the insects to travel more or less directly to another flower of your species. The showy flowers we see all around us are the strategy for making that happen: They are designed to attract insects through form, color, and scent, and they have wells of nectar for the insects to drink when they visit. The insects swoop in for a few pints, get sticky pollen all over their hairy bodies, and inadvertently transfer some of this pollen to the next flower they visit. Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am. The fertilized seed becomes a fruit or nut.

Bees are the world’s pollination masters; they have developed sophisticated sensory apparatus for finding flowers, special bodies designed to collect and transport pollen, and complex social intelligence that allows them to share information and allocate their resources so that a single hive of honeybees can cross-pollinate 25 million flowers in a single day. A good bit of the flowering world (and the animals that rely on the fruits made by this flowering world) have come to depend on them.

Rowan Jacobsen

Rowan Jacobsen, author of Fruitless Fall

What is CCD? When did it start, and what is the current status of honeybee colonies throughout the world?

Colony Collapse Disorder first showed up in the fall of 2006, though there were a few signs of it in 2005. Honeybee populations, which had been slowly declining for decades, suddenly fell off a cliff. 31 percent of America’s honeybees died that winter, and another 36 percent died last winter. The situation is similar in most other developed countries. No one knows what is causing CCD, though there are a few leading suspects.

What would happen to us if honeybees were to completely die off?

More than 100 crops, about a third of the calories we eat, require cross-pollination by honeybees. The grain staples such as corn, rice, and oats are wind-pollinated, but most of the stuff that adds color to our plates and vitamins and antioxidants to our diets—apples, pears, blueberries, cherries, raspberries, plums, melons, cucumbers, zucchini, almonds, macadamia nuts, and so on—would disappear. Plants like lettuce, carrots, broccoli, and onions, which don’t make edible fruits but need to make seeds for next year’s supply, also rely on bees. Bees also cross-pollinate the forage crops, like alfalfa and clover, that are vital to many dairying and beef cattle operations. And don’t forget honey, of course.

What would be the effect on human civilization? Are we talking mass starvation?

No mass starvation, because the grains that make up the bulk of our diet are not at risk. (Wind-pollinated.) So we’d have corn, bread, oatmeal, etc. And certain fruits, such as grapes, are wind-pollinated or self-fertilizing. And then there’s human pollination, as they’re doing in China. (Take millions of peasants, hand them bundles of chicken feathers, and let them climb through the fruit trees, touching every flower with a bit of pollen from a bucket.) What we’d have is extraordinarily high prices for most of the fruits and vegetables that provide our vitamins and antioxidants, if they could be found at all. And the beef and dairy industry, as Michael Pollan has pointed out, is switching more and more away from natural forage to corn, even though corn makes cattle sick, because it’s cheaper to feed corn and administer antibiotics to sick cattle than it is to use nature pasture. So we’d still have a beef industry, though a freaky one.

But honeybees aren’t on the edge of going extinct. They are, however, on the edge of not being able to provide all the pollination we’ve asked of them.

We’ve read about two possible suspects causing CCD. To start, what do we know about the effect of cell phone towers on bees?

A red herring. This started with a German study of the effect upon bees of electromagnetic radiation produced by cordless phones. The researchers stuck the bases of cordless phones directly into beehives and turned them on. The hives with cordless phone bases in them didn’t prosper as much as the hives that didn’t have cordless bases, but this is kind of like saying “homes with industrial power plants in the living rooms didn’t do as well as normal homes.” The subject of this study then got mistranslated into English as “cell phones” and the media and Internet ran wild with it.

The other possibility that has gotten a lot of press is genetically modified crops…

Nope. There’s no correlation between CCD and areas of the country using lots of GMOs. Most GMO crops are not bee-pollinated anyway. In one study that I’ve seen, bees were forced to eat nothing but GMO corn pollen for thirty-five days, and they came out of the study in robust good health.

So based on your research, what do you think is the cause of CCD?

A new class of pesticides called neonicotinoids may well be involved. These pesticides have revolutionized the world of pesticides and are now the most popular on the planet. They are systemics—you coat seeds with them, then the pesticide manifests throughout the growing plant. It can’t be washed off. This is great for farmers, but terrible for bees that get their food from the flowers of the plant. Bee die-offs around the world seem to coincide somewhat with the introduction of neonicotinoids. Now France, Germany, and Italy have banned the chemicals to protect their honeybees.

But the situation is complicated. France first banned some neonicotinoids in 1999, and its bee populations have not improved significantly. And the U.S. maps of cases of CCD and use of neonicotinoids don’t align that well. A recent study of pesticide residues in beehives found 43 different pesticides present, with neonicotinoids down near the bottom. So the bigger conclusion is that we have soaked our landscape in toxic chemicals, many of which can interact to form even more toxic compounds, and there is absolutely no regulation or testing of this mixing. Most beekeepers and researchers I’ve spoken with believe pesticides are one factor, working in conjunction with introduced parasites, viruses, bacteria, and fungi, and quite possibly with deteriorating living conditions for bees. (Poor quality food, too many hours on the backs of flatbeds traveling to the next pollination job, etc.) Bees could handle one or two of these stressors, but not all of them.

honeybees on truck

On a Connecticut highway, bees being transported by truck for pollination.
[Photo by Emmett Pepper]

Are bees the only insect pollinators? Are other pollinators in trouble?

There are 4,000 species of bees in the United States alone, and thousands of other pollinators, such as flies, beetles, hummingbirds, and even bats. But only honeybees come in convenient, transportable boxes of 50,000 individuals. Our industrial system of agriculture depends on them, and will for the foreseeable future, though moving some of our eggs out of that one basket, and starting to work with other pollinators, is an excellent plan. Evidence is spotty, but it seems like the populations of most wild pollinators are declining, primarily due to habitat loss.

There’s an interesting character in your book named Kirk Webster. Would you tell us a little about him and explain how his philosophy might offer a solution to what’s ailing bees?

Two decades ago, honeybees faced a tremendous threat from the introduction of the varroa mite, an Asian parasite of honeybees. The mites infest hives, sinking fangs into the bees (especially the larvae and pupae), which introduces diseases and reduces their lifespans. To battle the mites, the beekeeping industry came up with some pesticides that could be introduced to the hives. It killed most of the mites, but it also sickened the bees. But beekeepers felt like they had no choice. Well, guess what? The surviving mites quickly developed pesticide-resistant offspring, and within a few short years the mites were virtually immune to the chemicals. Since then, beekeepers have raced to find new chemical cocktails to kill the mites.

Kirk Webster practices holistic beekeeping in Vermont. His specialty is queen breeding, so he wanted no part of the mite treatments, which destroy the fertility of drones (male bees) and queens. He understood that the more we used chemicals to try to treat bees’ ills, the less the bees were going to have to come up with their own solutions, which would be more sustainable (and cheaper!) in the long run. So he simply stopped using chemical treatments of any kind and let 90+ percent of his bees die. Then he took the few survivors, who happened to have some genetic resistance to the mites, and bred them together. Basically, he did to the mites exactly what the mites had done to the beekeepers. After the better part of a decade he had developed lines of bees with strong natural mite resistance. They also seemed to be more resilient toward other factors. They are supremely good survivors, and they are wildly in demand. And all Kirk had to do was go without income for a decade to get there! This is just one area where we can find the answers to problems within natural systems, or impose them from without, which is always a short-term fix.

If you were appointed the world’s “Honeybee Czar” what actions would you take to protect the honeybee?

I’d provide funding for research programs into breeding a more resilient bee. For decades the honeybee industry has been woefully underfunded. And I’d require much stricter testing of pesticides before the EPA approves them. You wouldn’t believe how rudimentary the current testing is. (It’s also all self-reported by the pesticide makers.) But one of the best worldwide things I could do would be to support the development of programs for people to develop industries for their native pollinators. Part of the problem is that we’ve put all our eggs in this one basket, which is never the way it was supposed to be. Many other types of bees make promising pollination partners, including the various bumblebees, the blue orchard bee, and the Asian honeybee. We need much more diversity and resilience in this particular system.

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