America’s Apian Ghost Towns

A good friend of mine has two very life-like bees tattooed on her back, one on either shoulder blade. When asked their significance, she will happily explain that they are a personal reminder of the destruction and mayhem we humans wreck upon our environment. “Bees?” You might ask. “Not a beloved Hometree, toppled by greedy contractors amidst fire and brimstone?”

Interestingly enough bees are an apt reflection of environmental damage. An extreme reduction in the number of honey bees (Apis mellifera to you Latin lovers), feral and commercial, has been recorded over the past several decades. The mysterious phenomenon was dubbed “colony collapse disorder” or CCD in 2006, by which time some areas were reporting colony losses of up to 90% according to USDA. Why mysterious? CCD is characterized by a sudden, complete absence of bees in a colony (including dead bees…spooky, eh?). There is, however, a presence of “capped brood,” i.e. unhatched baby bees, which adult bees would normally never abandon. The vacant colonies also typically contain well stocked larders of both honey and bee pollen, which remain untouched by other bee colonies for some time after they are abandoned. Confirmed cases of CCD have been recorded in 24 different states, portions of Canada, India, Brazil, and parts of Europe. During the winter of 2008/2009, a total loss of 28.6% of commercial honey bee colonies was recorded in the U.S. – 15% of which was confirmed as CCD related.

Loss of the honey bee population would not only be a disastrous event for a certain honey loving bear, but for all of us. Bees aren’t just little honey making machines; they are a very important link in our economy. The bee product industry in the state of Georgia alone generates $70 million per year through the sale of honey, beeswax, queen bees and package bees. Apis mellifera are responsible for the pollination of thousands of plant species, including those we humans depend on for food. A full 1/3 of the human diet can be traced back to bee pollination, a service they kindly provide free of charge. A Canadian study estimated that the annual benefit of bee pollination totaled above $443 million per year. In 2000, a study at Cornell University estimated the value of U.S. crops that are entirely dependent on bee pollination exceeds $15 billion. The economic value bees provide, however, extends far beyond food crops. Bee pollination accounts for over 16% of flowering plant species in the world, sustaining plants that prevent erosion, increase property value, please our jaded senses, and are a key part of natural ecosystems.

While no single culprit has been identified, the causes of CCD have been speculated upon for years, ranging from cell phone signals to climate change and from parasites to pesticides. The explanation now emerging is of a complex condition, triggered by a combination of causes. This is nature we’re discussing after all.

So how is such a complex condition treated? Beekeepers have had some success by increasing the diversity of plants they’re bees feed upon. Bees that feed from a range of plants show signs of healthier immune systems than those forced to feed on acres of monocropping. One of the conclusions of a new French study is that bees need to ingest a range of proteins to create their various chemical defenses; an unvaried diet leaves them open to disease. Meticulous hive sanitation has also proved worthwhile, eliminating the instances of parasites like Nosema apis. In the U.K. farmers receive financial incentives to utilize wildlife-friendly practices. Dr. David Aston, chair of the British Beekeepers’ Association technical committee, says he believes there is a great opportunity to halt this decline by simply restoring natural diversity. “That makes landscapes much more attractive as well, so it’s a win-win situation,” he says.

Great or small, any step taken towards raising awareness or decreasing instances of CCD helps create healthier bees, which will create healthier crops and flowers, which will create healthier, happier humans.