Sunday, March 11, 2012

The buzzing workers of the global economy

Think back to what you ate this morning for breakfast. Toast and Jam? Maybe some coffee and fresh fruit, or perhaps some granola with almonds. Chances are you sat down, checked your e-mail and enjoyed your food without ever contemplating what it took to bring you your tasty morning routine. It is estimated that one in three bites we consume are directly related to honey bee pollination and of the crops requiring pollination for yields, it is estimated that honey bees are capable of pollinating 96% of those. From there we look at another startling figure; Bee pollination results in a direct input of an equivalent 36 billion U.S. dollars annually into the global economy.

It is surprising to realize that we as a species rely so heavily on pollinating insects such as Apis. Melifera for our food resources and yet even now, as you sip your coffee and read this text, bees are dying by the hundreds of thousands. Entire colonies are being wiped out, their workers abandoning their hives and disappearing. This new phenomena that was identified around 2006 has been dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and has been a rising hot topic in the realm of ecology and agriculture. Colony Collapse Disorder has seen 36% of bee colonies go extinct every year for 6 years in a row now. Luckily, bee farmers are very good at replacing "dead outs" within their colonies and so as a whole our number of colonies hasn't dropped since 2006. The problem however is that these beekeepers are losing a third of their crop a year, every year. Imagine if you were a farmer and lost a third of your crop every year for six years; How long could you keep it up? How long could you continuously recoup your losses and keep pressing on while trying to feed your family, pay your mortgage, and still have a little on the side for savings?

Compounding the problem is that we know very little about what specifically is causing CCD. We know that mites such as the Varroa and Tracheal are putting extensive stress on the colonies. We also know that the bees are getting infected with a pathogenic gut microbe as well as other viruses. The problem is we've identified and known about these stresses for much longer than the recorded colony collapses that are current; So the question becomes why are bees suddenly succumbing to diseases that they've learned to cope with previously?  

In a recently published article (January 2012) a biology professor at San Francisco State University by the name of John Hafernik made a startling discovery when a dead bee he'd collected erupted with fly larvae. Professor Hafernik had collected some deceased bees for future study, however being absent minded he left the vial of bees in his office. What he found was a complete shock, several fly larvae burrowing their ways out of the bee carcass and devouring it from the inside out; This never before recored phenomenon has provided some new answers to the global CCD question.

"Honeybees are among the most studied insects of the world... We would expect that if this was a long term parasite of the honeybees, we would have noticed" Hafernik said, exemplifying the relative novelty of this pathogen. What's even more surprising is that when Honey Bee colonies in the bay area of California were sampled, roughly 77% of them came up positive for this new fly parasite. New studies have done multiplicative pathogen accounts and come to the conclusion that it is not one simple thing that causes CCD in a hive, however multiple aspects or stresses that are causing the collapse of honey bee colonies globally. It is perhaps possible that with the infest of mites, parasitic flies and general bacterial pathogens honey bee colonies are just simple unable to cope with the amount of stress; And as a result are failing catastrophically. Hafernik's lucky find has helped propel the ball forward on understanding CCD, however we still know very little about this phenomena and until we can fully understand this ecological disaster we will have no hope of preventing it.

If we are unable to solve this colony collapse that honey bees are currently experiencing we will not only lose a convenient and cost effective way pollinate our food crops, bees also play a major role in the general health of our ecosystems. Since it's colonization by western Europeans, North America has lost over 99% of it's natural prairie lands due to habitat destruction and re-purpose, habitat fragmentation, and pollution. Ecologists are currently underway to restore and protect these unique, diverse, and critically endangered habitats; And in their efforts they've stumbled into one of the answers to these declining ecosystems. It seems that fragmented and isolated prairies have severe pollinator deficiency. These grasslands as a result have fewer seed and pollen yields resulting in a less stable and resilient biota as well as a significantly less diverse region.
Because most native plant species do not require a specific pollinator in order to propagate efforts are currently underway to provide these dying ecosystems with efficient pollinators such as Honey bees and Mason bees, which are some of the best pollinators on the planet. The problem now is that bees are in just as much danger as these prairies are and it's becoming more and more difficult to maintain consistent bee colonies for restoration projects. In order to secure our habitats and our own food bio security we must first save the real workers that make it all happen; Bees.

A quote by a man on the forefront of the fight to save the bee colonies health and future in our environment puts it all into perspective.

"Pollinators are canaries in the coalmine, and their disappearance is a referendum on the state of our environment -- a reminder of the brilliant and frightening interdependence of our ecosystem." --Dennis vanEnglesdorp

Dennis VanEngelsdorp said it best; Bees are clearly an essential aspect of our environment and are so integrating into our way of life that to lose them to CCD would yield a grim future where we're all impacted. Bees provide us with an invaluable ecosystem service and to fund their restoration now will save us billions of dollars in the future. Perhaps it's time to work for the bees as they have worked for us. Perhaps it's time to give back and help out the humble bee that brought you your coffee this morning. Because lets face it, you wouldn't have read this far if you hadn't had your morning brew.

Relevant Links:

Link to Dennis vanEnglesdorp's TED page. Read his bio and watch his video, it's fascinating.

The story of the San Francisco professor and his parasitic fly.

The role of bees in prairie restoration

General information about CCD from the USDA

1 comment:

  1. There were three things that caught my attention in this blog.

    First, one of the things that was interesting to me in the TED talk which is mentioned here is that bee colony numbers are actually staying stable despite huge losses, because "deadouts" can be replaced and new colonies rapidly reestablished. Therefore, the most immediate impact may be upon the beekeepers who are bearing these costs. The impact on this subculture and the particularity of this special culture as described in the TED talk really struck me and seems quite important, itself.

    Second, the discussion of the parasitic fly (and the associated article) were very intriguing. This is amazing how such critical discoveries like this can be made through absolute serendipity. And it seems to offer some hope that this be a critical factor in CCD that had not previously been accounted for.

    Finally, I really appreciated the discussion of prairie decline in this blog and the link to declining pollination. I think it's important to go beyond just the implications to our food system and look at the bigger landscape. However, while Honey bees may be especially efficient pollinators that could help the prairie systems, it seems that these ecosystems evolved and thrived before the arrival of the introduced honey bee, so perhaps it is more important to figure out and promote the key native pollinators that were associated with prairie systems.