Why Are Bees Declining?
What Causes Colony Collapse Disorder? Monoculture IS a Factor
By Deborah McSweeney – I am a long-time reader and love Countryside and Small Stock Journal — it is one of the best! That said, I had to write in regards to the November/December 2012 article on What Causes Colony Collapse Disorder — Fact or Fiction, which weighs in on the question why are bees declining.
I am a beekeeper who is currently taking my Master Bee Keeping Certification out of the University of Nebraska. I am also a board member for Partners For Sustainable Pollination, a non-profit that promotes education on pollinator habitat (such as gardening with plants that attract bees). At this time, in my opinion, there is not enough talk about wild pollinators and honey bee population declines.
It is not just the honeybee that is dropping in numbers, it is the wild pollinators too. They often eat from the same plants, though their home needs vary. Mr. Haldik forgot to mention in his list of suspect causes on that nutrition is one of the major factors being looked at in this intensive research that spans 32 state universities working together. (That alone is almost unprecedented.) He looked at the crop production of almonds as the case that there seems to be no problem since the crop yields have increased. First off, the almond industry supplies about 80 percent of the world’s almonds and they are constantly planting more trees in that area for production — I believe it is about one million acres now. This is a monoculture. Nothing else is allowed to grow between the rows of trees and the trees only bloom for a two to three week time in March. All pollinators need a steady supply of pollen and nectar throughout the year and so there are no bees, wild or domesticated, living in this area year round. The bees have to be shipped in from all across the country at a time of year when they are usually dormant, fed sugar syrup and trucked thousands of miles just to pull off pollination for the almonds. But there is a problem in that there are no longer enough bees in the U.S. to take care of this feat.
When colony collapse first appeared one beekeeper who owned 50,000 hives (anywhere from 55,000 to 75,000 bees per strong hive) had his bees in California for the almond pollination. In a two-week period he lost 40,000 hives to CCD. Do the math. I believe it was the following year that numbers had dwindled enough that it was evident that there was not enough bees to pollinate the almonds in the U.S. The USDA did something unprecedented in allowing honeybees to be shipped in from Australia just to fill the gap! This also brought exposure to new diseases like Israeli Acute Paralyses to all our honeybees that traveled there. Yes, they are also experimenting with mason bees for pollination but it is not as easy to get a hive ready and on the ground as the honeybees. The fact is where there are monocultures there are not enough food sources for these pollinators to survive. That is the problem with monocultures — they are totally unsustainable. The almond industry would fail if these pollinators were not shipped in from all over the U.S. and Australia! As readers of this magazine may note, we are constantly looking at how to be prepared and live off grid — to be sustainable. One hiccup in that mass pollination migration would spell the loss of most of the world’s almonds as well as the loss of a billion dollar industry yearly.
You can not look at the amount of crop land in the U.S. and compare it in a statement that it is all the same. Many places that were wild flower meadows have been turned into crop lands—the diversity of feed for pollinators in these meadows is not easy to reconstruct even with plantings. Bees travel two to five miles from their hive for forage and sometimes farther. Very few beekeepers move their hives for “source” feeding. Only large-scale producers move their hives around and most of them do it to pollinate a crop for pay. Any migratory bee keeper will tell you that bees get stressed when moved and most of them don’t like that they have to do it but it is their income. The USDA just awarded almost $1,000,000 in grants to some of the leading scientists in CCD to try and develop integrative pollinator habitat into regular farming practices. That is how serious this is.
The spraying of chemicals is a factor for any beekeeper, and is part of the answer to why are bees declining. Herbicides, fungicides as well as pesticides can kill honey bees and any other pollinator who gets too close. There are certain chemicals that are the most serious threat and they were not tested for the life of the honeybee or the life of a queen who can live for years. Chemical exposure in humans and animals can affect genetics—look at what happened with the use of DDT—a perfectly safe chemical we were told but it is still showing up in breast milk of humans—how many years ago was that banned? Or Agent Orange, that has affected multiple generations since vets returned from Vietnam, altering their bodies physically. More research has to be done on agricultural chemicals and how the long-term affect can change the health of pollinators.
And now to the food that would disappear. I am a chef and the fact is one-third of all we eat is pollinated by bees or the wild pollinators. From what I learned in my college nutrition class, I doubt we could survive on wheat, corn and other grains. Like the honeybees, we need a varied diet to supply the nutrients, minerals and vitamins necessary for life. It is an extremely naive person to think that we could survive without most of the fruits and vegetables we now consume. I believe it was Einstein, one of our greatest minds, who stated that if we lost the honeybee we would all die in four years! That is one theory I do not want to prove. I will continue to fight for bringing facts to people about the plight of all our pollinators and continue to do research into the facts of this very serious issue. Here are some websites that might interest you to help answer why are bees declining and what we can do about it.
Originally published in Countryside January / February 2013 and regularly vetted for accuracy.