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Rise in death of bee population could significantly impact human society

It’s an environmental calamity more imminent than global warming, plaguing the world’s most valuable livestock with a potential to wreak great havoc on our food supply.

Scientists call it Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD, and it refers to the mysterious disappearance of huge amounts of honeybees all over the world, including the United States.

Isolating a single cause has proven difficult for scientists. A number of hypotheses have been proposed, from the serious to the silly (such as cell phone transmissions that are supposedly throwing off the bees’ guidance systems). The two most likely causes are some as-yet unidentified infectious agent, or pesticides and other chemicals, or probably a combination of these and other factors.

Unfortunately, CCD doesn’t get nearly the same amount of attention as issues like global warming do. No activists are marching with signs saying ‘Save the bees,’ but they probably ought to be. It seems highly likely that human activity played a significant, if not pivotal, role in the honeybees’ disappearance.

However, what action is appropriate remains a mystery because science isn’t certain what is causing the problem. Still, increased attention could be paid, and although some possible pathogens have been identified, more resources must be poured into this venture, and quickly, because bees – as well as other pollinators – are disappearing at alarming rates.

Some Congressional hearings have been held, and certain steps have been taken. One of the most recent was the introduction to the U.S. of Russian bees that are resistant to one suspected pathogen, a species of mite. Other fairly ingenious solutions have also been used.

A NOVA program, ‘Silence of the Bees,’ explored a region in China where local farmers have come up with an ingenious method of human pollination to combat the complete disappearance of the feral bee in this region. Light feather dusters are dipped in pollen, painstakingly retrieved by hand, and glazed over the flowers. It’s a method that is allowing the farmers to barely scrape by but is far from an adequate replacement for the honeybee.

Too many solutions, however, go the unfortunate route of increasing our tampering with nature. Genetically engineered strains of both bees and plants are being proposed. Both of these have been in practice for years without obvious perilous consequence – hybrids of the European honeybee and African ‘killer bee’ maintain the European docility but have the higher African level of productivity.

Still, the further we alter our planet away from the way it was before we got here, the more it seems to be exacting a kind of revenge on us. We would do well to devise a purely natural solution, likely requiring us to alter our behavior significantly.

No other creature on Earth does as much work for human beings as the honeybee. About a third of the food consumed in America relies on honeybee pollination, and human pollination, by any clever method currently dreamed of, will not meet that demand.

According to The Daily Telegraph, a fifth of Britain’s bees were victims in the winter of 2008-09, double the natural rate. Numbers vary from source to source, but an October 2007 report by Science magazine suggested figures as high as ’50 to 90 percent of colonies lost in beekeeping operations in the United States.’ The actual number, according to an aggregate of sources, is probably nearer the 30 to 50 percent range, which is still alarming.

The bees’ disappearance, as well as the disappearance of nearly every other important pollinator, should it continue at present rates, would have dire consequences. Widespread famine might not immediately set in, but we would have to content ourselves with eating almost nothing except grains and corn.

Demand for bee-pollinated crops is still being met despite the huge die-offs. How long this will continue, however, is unclear. Even at the conservative rate of 20 to 30 percent honeybee losses, it won’t be long before farmers start to really struggle.

The imminence of this threat, and the fact that we still know too little about it to make any meaningful dent in CCD, should push it to the top of the environmental agenda. Whether it be the complete illegalization of pesticides or taking away everyone’s cell phone, no solution can be too radical for a problem as serious as Colony Collapse Disorder.

Respond to Kyle at [email protected]

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