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Population crash

(article, Stephanie Beechem)

Over the past several months, the international beekeeping community has buzzed with worry over the increasing rates of disease stressing out the planet's honey-bee populations. (Honey bees and the vital role they play in our food chain have appeared in two stories — "Complicated critters" and "Embattled bees" — on Culinate.) The worst is the latest, a mysterious affliction called Colony Collapse Disorder. The New York Times wrote about it this spring, and now the New Yorker's environmental writer, Elizabeth Kolbert (after reading that Times story), has tackled the subject herself. 

In her August 6 story, Kolbert travels from apiary stores in New York to almond groves in California. She buys her own hive and defends it against a local bear. And she ponders the problems facing honey bees.

Kolbert’s findings, like those of many new academic studies — Penn State has performed some of the most advanced studies on Colony Collapse Disorder  — are inconclusive, although Kolbert does suggest that some sort of insect AIDS may be responsible. "Bees suffering from C.C.D. were infected not with one pathogen but with many, and the most economical explanation was that their immune systems were compromised," she writes.

Still, no one really knows why, beginning in 2006, commercial beekeepers in the eastern United States began reporting unprecedented and unexpected losses of entire honey-bee colonies.

[%image feed-image float=left width=350 credit="Photo: iStockphoto/gkuchera" caption="Empty hives mean no pollination."]

Preliminary research at Penn State, in collaboration with the USDA, suggests that mites, pathogenic diseases, and pesticide contamination may be to blame. An article on AlterNet proposes that the systematic overworking of honey bees in industrial bee operations — in which thousands of stacked colonies are trucked back and forth across the country to pollinate crops like almonds and apples — may have caused the massive die-offs. 

Whatever the cause, an inevitable effect of a widespread domestic bee collapse is a decline in food production. In the U.S., bee-dependent crops include almonds, peaches, soybeans, apples, pears, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, watermelons, cantaloupes, cucumbers, and strawberries, among others — in total, some 30 percent of American crops. Congress, several large research universities, and the USDA are putting their collective heads together to research the disorder and stabilize our remaining bee populations.

However you look at it, life without bees would be a lot less sweet.


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