Today’s Solutions: May 28, 2023

Reports of catastrophic declines in the bee population have scientists buzzing. Is it mites? GM crops? Mobile phones? Habitat loss? Here’s what the plight of the humble bee says about our own relationship to nature.

Pat Thomas | Jan/Feb 2008 issue
Reports of catastrophic declines in the bee population have scientists buzzing. Is it mites? GM crops? Mobile phones? Habitat loss? Here’s what the plight of the humble bee says about our own relationship to nature.
Forget everything you thought you knew about the sedate and rarefied world of beekeeping. Bees are big business. In 2006, a Cornell University study found that in the U.S., bees annually pollinate more than $14 billion worth of seeds and crops—mostly fruit, vegetables and nuts. In the UK, they are responsible for the pollination of $420 million worth of food crops.

Bees’ role in the natural order of our world is crucial, and their importance as pollinators, both for agriculture and for wild plants, can’t be underestimated. Nor can it simply be quantified in monetary terms. Bees are what is known as a “keystone species,” ensuring the continued reproduction and survival not only of plants but of other organisms that depend on those plants for survival. Once a keystone species disappears, other species begin to disappear too—thus Albert Einstein’s apocalyptic and, these days, oft-quoted view: “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.”
This vision may be coming true. Our bees are dying—in record numbers. The recent disappearance of catastrophic numbers of bees from their colonies, in the U.S. especially but also in Europe, has been dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The most striking symptom of CCD is that the bees appear to die away from the hive. One day they fly away and never return. Those few that are left behind, say scientists, are ill indeed. Virtually every known bee virus can be found in their bodies; some are carrying five or six viruses, as well as several fungal infections, at the same time.
The other worrying factor is the way other bees and insects avoid these abandoned nests. In nature, nothing is wasted and an abandoned hive would normally be taken over by other creatures opportunistically looking for food and shelter. But hives suffering from CCD remain empty, suggesting that there may be something toxic in the colony itself.
At one time, a 10 percent loss over a season was considered normal; when parasitic mites became a common problem, that number rose to about 30 percent. With CCD, average colony losses have been reported at 70 to 80 percent. Theories abound as to why the bees are dying, but so far none explains it, or provides a clue about how to remedy the situation.
Perhaps our search for the cause is too narrow. If we want to understand why bees are dying off, then a first step would be to examine the myriad ways we have exploited them and corrupted their natural behaviour for our own convenience.
As the number of crops we grow increases, the need for pollinators grows too, and these days beekeepers can make more money renting out bees to pollinate food crops than they have ever been able to make selling homemade honey.
Migratory pollination is a multibillion-dollar industry. But transporting bees huge distances in giant 18-wheel juggernauts with the hives stacked on top of each other also stresses the insects out. Higher levels of stress in turn make them more vulnerable to disease. Studies show CCD is most prevalent in transported bees, with losses of up to 90 percent within the colonies.
By transporting bees across great distances, beekeepers are also transporting mites and any other parasites, viruses, bacteria and fungi to places they might not otherwise have spread.
Industrial-sized colonies may have greater market value, but they bring the same problems to bees that industrial poultry farmers have visited on their chickens and turkeys: the easy spread of disease.
In March, a survey of Ohio beekeepers found the average loss of live colonies in the previous six months was 72 percent. A close look at the figures, however, revealed that beekeepers with fewer than 100 colonies had an average 55 percent loss, but the loss rose to 75 percent for those with 500 or more colonies.
In addition, the boxy structure of modern commercial hives—which makes it easier to squeeze several colonies into a small space—and the configuration of bee yards have largely been designed for the convenience of human beekeepers and not necessarily with the health and natural biology of the bees in mind.
The natural diet of a bee is pollen and honey—a mixture rich in enzymes, antioxidants and other health-supporting nutrients. But to beef their bees up for the heavy work of pollination, commercial beekeepers feed them on the bee equivalent of protein bars and Lucozade—a mixture of artificial supplements, protein and glucose/fructose syrup. These sticky mixtures are freighted around the country in tankers to wherever the colonies happen to be. This is expensive and occasionally it proves cheaper to kill off whole colonies rather than feed them over the winter.

The artificial diets are in part a response to the decline of the bees’ natural foraging areas. Fewer plants means less natural food for the bees. But taking any living creature off its natural diet and force-feeding it junk food will inevitably result in poor immunity. Bees in particular have a much less adaptive immune system than we do, so if a bee becomes infected with a virus, its body can’t respond by making specific antibodies.
In a normal colony, the queen can live and produce eggs for several years. In commercial beekeeping, breeding better queens is a profitable business and queens are regularly killed and replaced—as often as every six months. The queen may be subjected to the stress of having her wings clipped to identify her and also to limit “swarming”—when bees leave one colony with a new queen and form another elsewhere (the natural way for bees to ensure their survival and genetic diversity).
To ensure that colonies express the genetic qualities that beekeepers value, however, some virgin queens are artificially inseminated with sperm from crushed males. This practise, while not universal, is gaining in popularity as it becomes more difficult for honeybees to survive naturally.
Bee populations have been affected by two types of mite infestations in recent years: a tracheal mite and the varroa mite that attacks the intestines. Varroa, in particular, depresses the bees’ immune response, making them more prone to infection. Varroa also makes the bees more vulnerable to a crippling viral disease that produces wing deformity.
In a healthy colony, varroa could to some degree be seen as useful, helping to cull the weaker members. But in already-weakened artificial colonies we treat the infestation with insecticides such as coumaphos, a dangerous organophosphate to which mites rapidly develop resistance. This resistance can be passed on from generation to generation, and some evidence suggests resistant mites actually thrive with repeated exposure.
Likewise, the pesticide fluvalinate creates resistance in the mite and disrupts the bees’ homing behaviour and ability to navigate. A bee that can’t find its way back home will eventually die.
Pesticides used on food crops and other crops can affect bees, even at sub-lethal doses. Exposure can produce a kind of pesticide intoxication that makes the bees appear “drunk” and disrupts navigation, feeding behaviour, memory, learning and egg-laying.
Fipronil, for example, impairs the olfactory memory process, which honeybees use to find pollen and nectar. Spinosad can make bumblebees slower foragers even at low doses. The insecticide imidacloprid can cause bees to forget where their hives are located. The French government banned imidacloprid in 1999 due to its toxicity to bees, the effects of which French beekeepers labelled “mad bee disease.”
Genetically modified (GM) plants account for about 40 percent of U.S. cornfields. A small study done at the University of Jena in Germany found that pollen from GM corn made the bees more vulnerable to death as a result of carrying the varroa mite. The bacterial toxin in the corn appeared to alter the surface of the bees’ intestines, weakening it enough to allow the parasites to gain entry.
As stories of CCD become more prominent, other theories emerge. Mobile phones and overhead power lines have been blamed for interfering with bees’ homing radar and preventing them from getting back to their colonies. It is not clear how sound this theory is. Better known is the fact that high background levels of electromagnetic radiation can suppress immune response and disrupt the nervous system in a variety of living creatures. It is unlikely that bees are the exception to the rule.
Having been co-opted into industrial farming, commercial bees have become just another type of farm machinery. But the machinery is breaking down. Ironically, the giant farms that destroy natural habitats and use large quantities of pesticides are the ones that need bees the most, and are at the same time important contributors to their decline.
Bees are sensitive, social creatures that have achieved a high degree of harmony and productivity in their colonies. Their social structure is both dynamic and ordered. They are intelligent, and become more so with age. They learn and remember; they can use visual orientation to estimate the distance from a nectar source while in flight. They construct colonies that are warm in the winter and cool in the summer. They also suffer from occupational diseases, just like we do.
The single coherent thread that connects all the various theories of CCD is a massive failure of these creatures’ immune systems. It is entirely possible that CCD is the inevitable result of an overwhelming, ongoing assault on their immune systems.
Humans have had a symbolic relationship with bees since the insects were domesticated 7,000 years ago, but it is clearly not a relationship of equals. We have long exploited bees for our own ends, even when that wasn’t necessary.
Because of our close proximity to bees and our deep reliance on them, any problems in our society—in the way we think and act, in our broader relationship with nature—will also affect theirs. The collapse of the bee population isn’t a scientific riddle to be solved with more and better science and technology.
In fact, it could be a frightening vision of our own future.
This article first appeared in the June 2007 issue of The Ecologist, the British magazine on environmental justice,

Print this article
More of Today's Solutions

10 simple things you can do to boost your mood (according to experts)

All of us have days when it's hard to get out of bed, and it feels like nothing we do makes a difference. These ...

Read More

Tired of virtual meetings? Here’s how to overcome ‘Zoom fatigue’

If you’re anything like us at the Optimist Daily, you’re probably feeling exhausted by virtual meetings. We spoke about it amongst ourselves while on ...

Read More

3 questions to ask at the end of a job interview (and 3 to avoid)

Suppose you, like many others these days, are re-evaluating your priorities and looking to make changes in your professional life. This may mean that ...

Read More

Have you heard? Over-the-counter hearing aids to become available in the US

Hearing loss is a health condition that many people all over the world grapple with. In the US alone, approximately 30 million Americans have ...

Read More