Rapidly declining honeybee numbers threaten our economy

Pesticide use, warm weather have dramatically reduced their population

By Reese Halter, Freelance January 15, 2010
Side note: from April Reeves: The honey bee issue is a big one for me, as I fully understand the link between them and our survival. We won’t. And although this may seem an odd post in a GE Free blog, it’s absolutely pertinent and timely. While we work at producing healthy foods for sustainability, another ‘side’ is slowly eating away at the crucial element that holds it all together. Unfortunately, I am adding one more element here that you won’t like. Cell phones. I don’t carry one because I understand the damage it does to the necessary ‘lines of communication’ bees have with each other and nature. No one has tried to prove this, but in my gut, the dots all line up (but I secretly hope to be wrong). So I’m posting this for this reason. There will be small areas of the world where bees will continue to thrive, but those areas cannot sustain urban food needs. Now the article:

Over the past three years, more than 50 billion honeybees have died. Scientists understand the causes and now we need everyone to lend a helping hand.

The humble honeybee has been inextricably linked to humankind since prehistoric times. At first we were drawn to this remarkable creature because of its sweet honey. Honey is to a bee what electricity is for humans — energy. One teaspoon of honey weighing 21 grams contains 16 grams of sugar or 60 calories, and it took 12 bees their entire foraging lives, combined flying time of about 9,700 kilometres, to produce it.

To understand the importance of honeybees consider that every third bite on your plate is a result of their primary role on the planet as pollinators.

Honeybees contribute at least $47 billion a year to the North American economy pollinating crops like nuts, vegetables and fruits; alfalfa and clover for beef and dairy industries; cotton for our clothes; honey, candles and medicines.

Bees have been on the planet for over 100 million years or about 14 times longer than the first human progenitor. They are being trained to help people as an early detector of disease by sniffing skin and lung cancers, diabetes and tuberculosis.

The Red Cross estimates there are as many as 120 million landmines in 70 countries and 40,000 new landmines are being deployed weekly. Each year these weapons maim tens of thousands of children. Researchers at the University of Montana are using bees to find TNT residue — the primary ingredients in landmines.

Many blue-chip corporations depend on honeybees for their products including Generals Mills’ Haagen-Dazs ice cream, Starbucks coffee and Clorox’s Burt’s Bees — a specialty personal-care company with over 150 products.

A PERFECT STORM

A combination of factors has collided to create the perfect storm responsible for memory loss, appetite loss and autoimmune system collapse resulting in the rapid decline in honeybee populations worldwide.

Each year 2.3 billion kilograms of pesticides are applied globally. Many are neonicitinoids, a nerve poison that prevents acetylcholine from allowing neurons to communicate with each other and muscle tissue. In humans, it would trigger Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

Imidacloprid (one form of neonicitinoids) is manufactured by Bayer under the trade names of Gaucho and Pancho. It killed millions of bees in France before eventually being banned there, yet it’s still used widely in North America.

In 2008, researchers from Penn State found 43 different pesticides in a Pennsylvania apple orchard. Many farmers combine or stack their chemicals to reduce applications costs, however stacking chemicals is known to increase toxicity levels in some cases by a thousandfold.

Research from Europe showed that bees exposed to electromagnetic radiation from cellular towers made 21 per cent less honeycomb and that 36 per cent, taken a half mile from the hive, were unsuccessfully able to navigate home.

In 2006 the honeybee genome was decoded and their genetics revealed only half as many genes for detoxification and immunity as other known insects. Scientists found specific “good” bacteria inside their stomachs and intestines crucial for fighting pathogens and digesting the silica casing around each pollen grain, providing access to its protein.

Bees evolved to feed on a wide assortment of pollens, but today we use them in monoculture fields. Pollens provide their only source of protein. Proteins grow eggs, larvae, brains and autoimmune systems.

The abnormally high temperatures of 2006 were likely the tipping point for bees in North America. The searing springtime temperatures during the onset of flowering are believed to have caused sterile pollen in many plants. Sterile pollen produces little if any protein.

In 2007, almond, plum, kiwi and cherry pollen that were tested exhibited little protein content. Infertile soils lacking essential nutrients, bacteria, fungi, protozoa along with climate change were implicated.

Beekeepers around the globe are now feeding their hives a form of a protein shake with eggs, brewers yeast, pollen and honey and other special ingredients.

Clearly, agriculture must reduce the levels in toxicity from pesticides, herbicide and miticides, globally.

There is hope on the horizon as organics is the fastest-growing sector in North America at $27 billion a year — U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama has an organic garden on the White House lawn with two honeybee hives close by.

Each of us can help by purchasing organic foods and cottons, support local beekeepers by buying organic honey.

Do not use herbicides, pesticides, or miticides in your yard. Plant a wide variety of native yellow and blue flowers and participate by helping scientists in Nature Watch’s http://www.naturewatch.ca/english/plantwatch/program.

Without the honey bees, we cannot survive.

Reese Halter is a biologist at California Lutheran University. He is the founder of the conservation institute Global Forest Science. His latest book is The Incomparable Honeybee and the Economics of Pollination, from Rocky Mountain Books.

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