It’s been a bad couple of years for honeybees, starting with Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, and ending with increasing urbanization as farmer’s fields and private meadows give way to housing and factories.
Now, on the heels of an announcement by University of Montana scientists that they may have discovered the cause of CCD, ScienceDaily is suggesting that a random grid of half-acre plots could be turned into bee pasture, allowing honeybees to forage for pollen, make honey, and create new generations of healthy, young bees.
Colony Collapse Disorder, first discovered among honeybee colonies in Europe in 2005, and then in the U.S. in the fall of 2006, has been ascribed to a number of causes, including pesticides, cell phones (and/or cell phone towers), genetically modified plants, Varroa mites, and – at least in Israel, a virus (in 2004).
In the U.S., this sudden decline in bee populations – up to 90 percent in some cases – caused a furor among apiarists, orchardists and crop producers, whose plants (almond, pecan, cashew, onions, kiwi, celery, rapeseed, crassulas, safflower, melons and gourds) require honeybees to set fruit and produce seed.
For example, the almond crop in California, valued at about $1.60 per pound wholesale, is expected to top 1.65 billion pounds this year. That means about $2.64 billion dollars.
To make this happen, the state needs about 1.5 million colonies of bees, or about 60 percent of all the honeybee colonies extant in the U.S. In fact, between 1940 and today, honeybee colonies have been reduced by half, from 5 million to 2.5 million.
The U.S. squeaked by this year, pollinating all the crops it needed. Next year may not be the same, even if are more bee colonies available, because the cost of hiring them has risen not merely from depletion but through rising transportation costs. The average hive, with one box of honey, weighs about 100 pounds, so large trucks with built-in cranes or strong crews are essential to moving them from field to field.
Add to disease the impacts of urbanization, as fields and meadows are bulldozed to create more “people” space, depriving honeybees of the pollen and nectar they need to live, and you have a critical situation that spells the potential meltdown of the honeybee as a species (and of mankind, half of whose food supply depends on bees).
Fortunately for both species, things are beginning to look up. In 2008, recognizing the scope of the problem, the University of California at Davis and Häagen-Dazs, makers of world-famous ice cream, worked jointly to create the Honey Bee Haven, a half-acre of all the flowering plants honeybees most like to schmooze.
Honey Bee Haven was designed to be a working field laboratory for the study of honeybees and the potential causes behind CCD. Since then, UM researchers, using high-tech, U.S. Army analytical tools, have discovered a previously unknown honeybee virus (apparently isolated to North America) and a fungal pathogen that work together to decimate honeybee colonies.
Published in PLoS ONE on October 13, the research – by Biology Research Professor Jerry Bromenshenk, who was among the first to investigate CCD – is a work in progress that aims to conclusively identify and isolate the causes of North American Colony Collapse Disorder.
Using a liquid-chromatograph from the U.S. Army’s Edgewood Chemical Biological Center at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, Bromenshenk collaborated with Dave Wick of BVS Inc. and Army personnel to identify an insect iridescent virus, or IIV, that had never been completely sequenced before, and a fungal pathogen, Nosema ceranae, in specimens of honeybees from colonies affected by CCD. Identification was made possible by the chromatograph’s ability to process as many as 30,000 proteins in a single sample.
And to improve the honeybee’s living circumstances even further, ScienceDaily recently published an article on creating random, half-acre, pesticide-free bee pastures, which entomologist James H. Cane of the U.S. Department of Agriculture says would be simple to establish and maintain on public lands, and an “environmentally friendly and economically sound” method of insuring that hives raise successive generations of healthy young bees.
In much the same way that inner-city children grow up stunted, honeybees deprived of pasture grow up less than healthy and able to do their increasingly important job – pollinating edible plants.
In addition to pasturage, however, Cane also suggests cultivating bee species like the blue orchard bee (Osmia lignaria) as a stopgap measure until Apis mellifera, the European honeybee, recovers – or in the event that it dies out entirely. Cane also sees dedicating bee pasturage planted with native California wildflowers ideal for bees, including baby blue eyes and California bluebell.
In the end, the honeybee – like the Dodo bird and the Labrador Duck – may become extinct, simply because it was not genetically designed to adapt to the increasing hazards of modern civilization. But at least now people are now paying attention to the possibility, and that recognition of a problem is, as they say, halfway to solving it.
What can you do to help? Take out 100 feet of lawn and plant wildflowers native to your area. Put out a bee pool, where foragers can come for a drink of water. And stop using pesticides on grass, shrubs, flowers and trees. The natural world did just fine without pesticides for thousands of years; it can likely do so again.
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