The Unbearable Silence of
Be quiet for a moment. Can you hear it? Probably not, but it’s not all your fault. The sound that is missing is the buzzing of billions of bees, that have been disappearing at an alarming rate lately. And the deafening silence from most people, who remain aloof to all of it.
They’re up to a rude awakening, however. Managed care of honeybees, used to pollinate a third of U.S. foods, is on the verge of collapsing, in synch with the insects’ own collapse because of, you guessed it, our own doing. And the proposed solution won’t be enough to stop it.
Consider the Obama administration’s plan, announced this week, to counter a 42% loss of colonies reported last year by U.S. beekeepers. It’s been greeted with dismay by environmentalists because it doesn’t address the key factor that may be single-handedly causing their demise: a new class of pesticide.
Neonicotinoid insecticides were developed by Shell and Bayer as a milder alternative to other pesticides. Instead, soon enough they too became linked to even worse environment effects, top among them, the honeybee colony collapse disorder. That’s why their use is already restricted in European Union nations.
Thus, it’d be logical to expect that the EPA, underfunded as it is, would be charged with controlling and enforcing its phasing out, given the alarm sounded by apiaries. Not so fast, apparently; despite a year worth of petitions to ban neonicotinoids, the new proposal simply ignores it.
But it’s not all bad. Even critics cite the restoration of seven million acres of bee-friendly areas, lost to urbanization, as a positive step included in the plan. It’ll all depend on the bees, however, since as it happens, they seem now prone to get addicted to other sources of sweets. In that case, we’re all doomed.
Or not. Many doubt that the eventual disappearance of bees will bring about such an apocalyptical scenario. They think it’s too melodramatic. Then again, they don’t usually care for fruits. Or vegetables. Or, what the hell, nature. Neither they see a problem when dolphins die, so you do the math.
We could do without so much sweets (or repeats, for that matter) but we do value the fruits and veggies undocumented immigrants and their families work their asses off to bring to us. So if not for the birds and the bees, then at least for the humans who may be breathing neonicotinoids too, let’s say it’s time.
It’d be dumb to discard the stunning beauty by which pollinators and specially bees grace this world, on behalf of our pedestrian mores. Between them and us, it’s hard to say which is the clear favorite. And speaking of repeating ourselves, here’s a post we’ve published over a year ago on the subject.
Bee Friends Ask Lovers of Roses
& Chocolate to Help Save Colonies
A number of environmental groups have chosen Valentine’s Day week last year to remind everyone in general, and lovers in particular, that the massive disappearance of bees continues on but, as far as we now know, it can still be halted.
Their timing is appropriate. That mostly shopping holiday, treasured by precious few but still feverishly cheered by many, is a major sales day for roses and chocolate, and neither will be around for the taking for too long, if pollinators are to die off.
As a matter of fact, nor will human folk, if Albert Einstein was right in his grim prediction. Whether the quote is apocryphal or not, $30 billion worth of U.S. crops face the catastrophic threat of not surviving many more winters without enough bees to assure their pollination.
If that happens, it wouldn’t be for lack of warnings, just like climate change and the annual extinction of countless flora and fauna species. The ongoing tragedy of bee Colony Collapse Disorder, which has been quickly intensifying, is a result of yet another man-made folly.
To be sure, there’s not one single cause. But what was initially blamed solely into infections caused by the Varroa and Acarapis mites, has now pointed to the conclusion that for many should’ve have been obvious all along: neonicotinoids, a lethal class of pesticides.
Used for years on corn, soy and other crops, they may not kill bees directly, or other insects that are part of the chain of pollination crucial for the survival of any crop, for that matter. But the way they act is just as damaging, entomologists say.
SOMETHING IN THE POLLEN
Between the varroa mite, now considered one of the most contagious insect viruses on the planet, and a profit-busting industry of pesticides, hope for bees is quickly dwindling. If consumers stay quiet, that is. That’s what many environmental organizations are seeking to reverse.
When neonicotinoids began showing up in bee pollen, a team of researchers led by U.S. Department of Agriculture bee scientist Jeff Pettis and University of Maryland entomologist Dennis van Engelsdorp, noticed its correlation with a fungal pathogen, Nosema ceranae, associated with colony collapse.
But just as other studies confirmed the role of ‘neonics,’ as they’ve become known, in the global, massive disappearance of bees, not surprisingly, companies that produce the insecticides, such as Syngenta, Bayer and BASF, continue to deny that their products are harmful, obviously concerned about protecting a multi billion dollar market.
Some 37 million bees have already turned up dead on a single Canadian farm last year, and with a particularly harsh winter in the Northern Hemisphere, many fear that the current round of bee die-offs will one of the worst to date. There isn’t reliable stats for the millions of small apiaries that may be also wiped out with the disaster.
That threatens some 80% of the diet of contemporary societies, which is dependent on pollination by honeybees, from apples to cherries to watermelons to onions to almonds. That obviously includes flowers such as roses, in high demand during Valentine’s Day, as is chocolate, even though cocoa trees are pollinated by another insect.
THE VALENTINE’S SWAY
Thus, a coalition of environmental groups led by Friends of the Earth is raising public awareness to the fate and importance of bees for all humans, not necessarily lovers, by focusing on two U.S. retailers, Home Depot and Lowe’s, which are expected to sell a lot of both plants and pesticides this time of the year.
Backed by half a million petition signatures, BeeAction.org is pushing to have these companies stop selling products that have been proved to be harmful to bees. The movement got a big boost last December, by the way, when the European Union decided to ban for two years the use of that class of insecticide.
Bee advocates and small producers aim at gaining momentum towards a ban in the U.S., where the Obama administration has been less than receptive to it, by seeking the support of farmers and food producers who have been sounding the alarm for several years now about the steady rise of global food prices.
Technological research is also far advanced towards finding a benign way of dealing with the disorder. A team at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology is outfitting bumblebees with tiny backpacks equipped with radio transmitters, to track them as they fly and nip across the German countryside.
TRACKING A WAY OUT
The obvious limitations of the experiment, including the weight of the backpacks, haven’t prevented the researchers from gathering valuable information about the paths and habits of bees as they go about their business. Such information may be crucial to establish strategies to fight their predicament.
And before we forget, it’s important to note that a possible demise of honeybees is likely to trigger the disappearance of other important, albeit less glamorous, pollinators. We’re talking, of course, of the Forcipomyia Biting Midge, which is the only insect to actually brave and pollinate the hard-to-access cocoa tree, which grows deep in forests. Just in case you didn’t know it. You’re welcome.
These less than popular insects are the invisible masters of our world, as far as food is concerned, without whom no amount of technology would be able to provide for us. They’re constantly threatened by a myriad of man-made products and lifestyles, which far surpass their once main predators, and now also at risk of disappearance: birds.
As with other species at risk of extinction, after millions of years of sustainable balance, the arrival of humans at the top of the food chain has also brought about the first serious threat to that very same food chain. And as predators without frontiers, we’re not conditioned to region or even ecosystem.
We’re equal-opportunity destroyers, but we’re also in a privileged position to rationally divert the means that may lead us all to an untimely demise, just like the ones we’ve been inflicting on other species. Compared to them, we’re even more fragile and vulnerable to environmental unbalances, even if of our own making.
STINGS LIKE A FENCE?
As utilitarians at heart, humans may also miss the point when comes to appreciate the role of bees and other pollinators in the concert of nature. We see them as providers, working around the clock to our sustainability, even as, with the other hand, we’re making sure that they can’t perform such role as effectively as they should.
But there’s much more to these species than meets our needs, and eyes. And, in the case of bees, their presence is required even when they’re not out there, laboring to produce honey and pollinate the flora. Take what happens in some parts of Africa, for example, and find out a surprising way they can also be effective.
Increasing farmland and sprawling human settlements mean that boundaries between the precarious idea of civilization and wild life are growing thin and overlapping dangerously. In Africa, it also means ever more frequent encounters of farmers and powerful animals, out to do what nature sets them up to: survive.
In the case of elephants, the majestic creatures that, as many others, has been at the cruelest end of human interactions for ages, such encounters are almost always fatal. Physical fences have proven useless to contain them, and so has an array of other measures. The solution: a virtually invisible ‘fence’ made of bees.
Say what? For as large and strong willed as they are, elephants fear bees as much as the next guy. Researchers found out that they even have a specific sound, a kind of alarm to the herd, really, that they make when coming across a hive. So, why not take advantage of that to keep them away from crops?
That’s what Dr. Lucy King, an Oxford University researcher, has devised in a pilot program of 34 farms in Kenya. Attaching hives to fences served two purposes: elephants are chased away by bees, and these, as a bonus, also produce honey for the farmers. After a few tries, elephants give up on trying to ‘trespass.’ After all, hasn’t it been said that they never forget?
* Multicolored Honey
* They Do That Too