By Arwa Lodhi
What did you have for breakfast today? Toast? Cereal? A bit of fruit? Or just some coffee? Whatever it may have been, chances are, bees helped it to your table.
Without bees, it would be very difficult to grow almost anything, from wheat to coffee beans to apples. No bees, no food. Which means the fact that hive losses in America have already surpassed 50 percent is very scary indeed.
What’s worse is that no one is sure of the exact cause. Colony collapse disorder (CCD) is blamed for doubling or tripling the usual rate of winter hive die-offs, and some possible reasons for CCD have been cited, but a single reason for the demise of bees remains elusive. Here is a list of some of the main reasons the bees may be buzzing off.
Mobile phones: Some scientists believe that the proliferation of mobile phones has been bombarding these tiny insects, which have highly evolved navigational systems, with radiation, which could be disorientating them and possibly even killing them.
GMO crops: In 2000, scientists noted that Monarch butterflies were being impacted by poisoned pollen from Monsanto’s Bt Corn, a genetically modified crop that carries a toxin that is meant to protect the corn from pests like corn borer and rootworm. This GM pollen travelled with the wind and contaminated critical butterfly food sources like milkweeds.
While there is no direct evidence that Bt corn causes damage to bee colonies, GM pollen may contribute to sublethal but chronic exposure to chemicals, toxic accumulation in honeycomb, changing the pH of different feeds, even the genetic diversity of a single hive.
Malnutrition: What do honeybees eat? Why, honey, of course (dehydrated, fermented flower nectar), as well as “bee bread” (a fermented mixture of pollen and nectar). Honey is the bee’s main carbohydrate source, while bee bread is about one-third protein and adds needed vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and other vital components to the bee diet.
When left in nature, bees store these foods until the winter, when they huddle together to stay warm, and eat from the stores in their hives. But commercially managed colonies that are badly managed give the bees a cheap, nutritionally inadequate honey substitute like high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) , and take the more nutritious honey to market.
Hives can do well on a diet of HFCS if acids like vitamin C or apple cider vinegar are added to a sugar syrup to bring the pH closer to that of honey, but most large, commercial beekeepers take the cheapest and easiest option. The resulting unnatural diet for the bees may have some negative effects, especially when paired with other stressors.
The solution? Avoid buying honey from big brands, unless they certify their honey as organic or bee-friendly.
Pesticides: Systemic commercial farming pesticides like imidacloprid and clothianidin, a.k.a “neonics,” are persistent in soils for as long as two years, and are water-soluble, which means they can disperse far from where they were originally sprayed. The roots of plants then suck up the toxins, and circulate them throughout the plant, contaminating the leaves, nectar, fruit–everything. These pesticides are neurotoxins and can cause brain damage to all animals.
Worse yet, beeswax itself retains certain pesticides over time, including those used by conventional beekeepers against the Varroa mite (see below). Over time, these pesticide residues accumulate in the combs and build up over the years. And even organic honey cannot guarantee the hives are pesticide free.
Why is that? In any agricultural area, odds are high that bees are surrounded by plants that are circulating the most popular class of pesticides on the market, whether by direct application or because of drift or runoff. In effect, the bees are forced to accumulate toxins in their hives, and when winter comes and the bees cluster in their hives, they spend the season eating nearly-lethal doses of poisoned food. When we recall that these toxins affect the brain and thus behaviour, it’s no surprise then that bees have often been reported flying away from the hive in the dead of winter, en masse, only to die in the cold.
The solution? More organic farming of more crops, for a start!
Loss of habitat: There are two main issues here: general urban sprawl and monoculture crops. These both contribute to the loss of biodiversity, and thus the bees suffer a reduced range of nutrients in their diets than they had even a few decades ago. Added to the problem of a less nutritious diet due to commercial farming, this could mean weaker, sicker bees.
Varroa mites: Varroa mites are parasites that latch onto the larval bee bodies and spread diseases and weaken the entire colony. The mites reproduce quickly, and are able to completely destroy entire colonies. In fact, scientists blame the mites for killing most of the bee populations in North America, and indeed, varroa mites are every beekeeper’s worst nightmare–these tiny creates can be killed with chemicals, mineral oil mists or under-hive oil traps, but each method can also damage the bees’ health, too.
In short, it seems there is very little that is being done to save the bees, because no one is really sure what to do. But research here is essential:the longer Colony Collapse Disorder goes on, the fewer bees will survive, and the more perilous our own food security becomes.
To help save the bees, please click here.