Bees. Most people fear them, others use flyswatters or shoes to kill them and still others admire and study them.
Their sting can be as painful as a cigarette burn, and deadly to those allergic to their venom.
How you feel about bees depends on the type of bee involved. Yellow Jackets, the super aggressive, picnic terrorists who help themselves to colas and potato salad, are really members of the wasp family. The bees I’m talking about are the far less “in-your-face” honeybees, and they’re in serious and mysterious decline-a wane that could have enormous complications for our food supply.
Richard Rys told the Cape Cod Times (capecodonline.com) he lost two hives last fall. He sums up the problem best, “The hives were going great, with brood and plenty of food in there. Then one day there were just 100 bees in the hive — one day there's 30,000 bees and then there's 100. "
Recent developments with honeybee hives should spark some thought in M. Night Shyamalan’s mind for a new, chilling movie, because the situation is that bizarre and scary. For reasons that have Agriculture Department entomologists scratching their heads, honeybee hives have been mysteriously vanishing in significant numbers nationwide and in Europe. (By hives, I don’t mean the boxes in which the bees live. I mean the bees as a colony. )
Throughout New England, honey is a must have for residents and tourists alike, but producing the nectar of the gods is back seat to how they earn much more money for their owners. Beekeepers rent honeybees to farmers to pollinate certain types of nuts, fruits vegetable plants and flowering trees. In fact, some dairy farmers in New England have sold their cattle herds and bought queen bees and hives because honey and renting hives brings a decent price, and bees are far lower maintenance. Plus, they’re cheap to set up. A good queen costs a mere $21, and a whole hive costs (depending on where you buy it) about $300.
Exactly when the problem began is uncertain. Scattered reports of hive failures go back to 2002, but they were scattered and rare then. Now, the situation has grown alarmingly.
It became a truly distressing national phenomenon in the fall of 2006 and winter of 2007 when beekeepers began to notice sudden, massive disappearances of their hives. Thirty percent to ninety percent die-off rates were reported to the Department of Agriculture. An arm of that agency, the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), began to study the few sorry bees left behind to try to diagnose the cause. The bees they studied were riddled with every bacteria, virus, fungus, parasite and disease known to affect apiaries.
Continuing unabated, the problem has heightened anxiety in direct proportion to its prevalence. It’s as if the bees’ immune systems are simply shutting down, leaving them vulnerable to infestations and pathogen onslaughts of all kinds. In a sense, it’s like AIDS for bees.
Adding to the bizarre nature of the bee vanishings is that, of five apiaries close together, only one or two may be affected, but not all.
Realizing it was a problem growing unabated—and the hint of catastrophic consequences for the food supply entering their minds-entomologists initially dubbed the phenomenon, “Fall Dwindle Disease. ” They hoped winter’s harsh conditions would halt its spread. It didn’t. Hopes for natural-course containment were dashed, and hives continue to disappear. Its stubbornness has now earned it the more foreboding moniker, “Colony Collapse Disorder” (CCD).
During the winter of 2007, ARS formed the Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group, comprising ARS, universities and state agricultural departments. Their mission? Ascertain what they can about the cause of the problem and stop it. But so far, it’s CCD millions, and ARS, 0.
While some folks shrug and ask, “So what?” It’s important to understand that honeybees pollinate as much as $15 billion worth of the nuts, fruits and vegetables in this country each year. Absent that pollination, vacant produce shelves may become new departments selling exotic breads and cheeses in our supermarkets.
According to the Department of Agriculture, in California alone, the almond crop requires 1.3 million colonies of bees. That’s almost half of all honeybees in the nation. And demand for almonds is expected to grow. By 2010, ARS predicts almond growers will need 1.5 million colonies. As more and more hives succumb to CCD, beekeepers won’t be able to meet the demand. Lower crop yields will eventually make almonds as costly as diamonds.
ARS is now concerned enough to start using some dire warnings. From their Web site “…this crisis threatens to wipe out production of crops dependent on bees for pollination. ” Among those crops, besides almonds are: other nuts, fruits, berries and vegetables.
Within the working group, various theories about the cause are bubbling to the surface, but none is prevalent, much less provable. Some entomologists blame certain types of pesticides. Some attribute the problem to stress. Often driven long distances when rented to a farmer, the trip stresses bees, and their immune systems start to sputter. But bees have been traveling long distances for years without CCD being the result.
While they won’t use the terminology, the ARS, this is the stuff of biblical plagues. If they and their research partners can’t identify the cause, then find a way to stop it, the humble, hard-working honeybee may make the growing list of extinct species. If that happens, some of the agriculture upon which we depend for our food supply will shrivel into obscurity right beside the bees.
James H. Hyde is Editor, Designer and Co-Founder with his wife Terry of newenglandtimes.com http://www.newenglandtimes.com. He has served as Managing Editor of three magazines, two at the same time; is a winner of the prestigious Jesse H. Neal Award for “Best In-Depth Analysis Article of the Year"; has written two syndicated newspaper columns; and has written for “The New York Times. " NewEnglandTimes. Com helps visitors to the region with travel and tourism planning and covers real estate and New England lifestyles. The site has the exclusive life story of famed author Dominick Dunne.