Mystery of the disappearing bees might be solved

22 09 2012

Were it a Sci Fi novel, this plot would be slammed for being too far-fetched – thriving colonies vanish overnight without leaving a trace, the remains of the victims never to be found.  Except in this case, it’s not fiction; it’s happening to fully one third of beehives, more than a million colonies each and every year. Seemingly healthy communities fly off never to return. The queen bee, the ‘mother’ of the hive is abandoned to starve and die…..

Thousands of scientists have been on this case for at least 15 years, trying to establish why honey bees are disappearing everywhere in such alarming numbers.  “This is the biggest general threat to our food supply,” says Kevin Hackett, the national Program Leader for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s bee and pollination program.

Until quite recently, the evidence was inconclusive on the reasons for the mysterious “colony collapse disorder” (CCD) that threatens the very future of beekeeping worldwide. Three new studies, however, point an accusing finger at a culprit that many have suspected for quite a while, pesticides known as neonicotinoids.

Australian Commercial Beekeepers I’ve spoken to can remember cleaning moths from truck windscreens when moving bees and chasing honey flows. On some warm nights the moths would get so bad, that they would have to pull over and clean the screen to see out of it……  but where are the moths now…?

Research published last month in the prestigious journal Science shows that neonics are absorbed by plants’ vascular system, which then contaminate the pollen and nectar that bees come into contact with on their rounds. Neonics are a nerve poison which disorient their insect victims and apparently damage the bees’ homing ability, which might account for their mysterious failure to make it home to the hive….

Another study published in the American Chemical Society’s Environmental Science and Technology journal implicated neonic-containing dust emanating into the air at sowing time with “lethal effects compatible with colony losses phenomena observed by beekeepers.”

Purdue University entomologists observed bees at infected hives “exhibiting tremors, uncoordinated movement and convulsions”, all signs of severe insecticide poisoning….  And yet another study conducted at the Harvard School of Public Health actually managed to re-create CCD in several honeybee hives simply by administering small doses of the popular neonic imidacloprid.

Almond Monoculture

But scientists also believe that exposure to pesticides is but one factor that has led to the decline of honey bees….  The destruction and fragmentation of bee habitats, as a result of development and the spread of monoculture agriculture (you should see the thousands of acres of almonds that bee keepers get paid to pollinate in California..), deprives pollinators of the diversity they requirein their natural food supply.  The planting of genetically modified organism (GMO) crops – many of which now contain toxic insecticides within their genetic structure – may also be responsible for poisoning bees and weakening their immune systems.

Each spring, millions of bee hives are trucked to the Central Valley of California and other agricultural areas to replace the wild pollinators, which have mostly disappeared in many parts of the US. These bees are fed high-fructose corn syrup instead of their own nutritious honey.  Plus, in an effort to boost productivity, queens are artificially inseminated, which has led to the disturbing decline in bee genetic diversity.  Bees are also dusted with poisons to control mites and other parasites that are flourishing in the overcrowded industrial colonies.

In 1923, Rudolph Steiner, the famous German founder of biodynamic agriculture, predicted that within a hundred years artificial industrial techniques used to breed honey bees would lead to the species’ collapse. His prophecy was right on target!  How many more prophecies “right on target” do we need before we come to our senses…?

Bees have been likened to ‘the canaries in the coal mine’. Their disappearance is nature’s way of telling us that conditions in the world around us are going pear shaped….  Bees won’t survive for long if we don’t change industrial breeding practices and remove poisons from their environment.  A massive pollinator die-off would destroy world food supplies, devastating ecosystems that depend on them in the process…. The loss of bees rivals climate change in its impact on life on earth.

This is a disaster that need not happen.  Germany and France have already banned pesticides that have been implicated in CCD.  We still have time to save the bees by working with nature rather than against it (not Permaculture principles again..!), according to environmentalist and author Bill McKibben:

“Past a certain point, we can’t make nature conform to our industrial model. The collapse of beehives is a warning – and the cleverness of a few beekeepers in figuring out how to work with bees not as masters but as partners offers a clear-eyed kind of hope for many of our ecological dilemmas.”


Bee-harming pesticides banned in Europe. EU member states vote ushers in continent-wide suspension of neonicotinoid pesticides