Battle for the bees

By Andrej Mrevlje |

In 2006, the modern world faced the first bee die-off. It happened overnight, and the human race listened in shock to the reports of empty and abandoned hives, with millions of bees gone. They had simply evaporated.

Nine years later, the annual survey by the Bee Informed Partnership, which includes the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is reporting that American beekeepers lost 42.1 percent of their bee colonies this year. This is another alarm after somewhat better results from 2014, when the loss of bee colonies was only 23 percent. Back in 2006, the first bee epidemic of such biblical proportions arrived unexpectedly, so everyone called it a mystery. Now, almost decade later, the bees continue to disappear. They die in droves, abandoning the world of humans.

But the phenomenon can no longer be called a mystery. Among the first theories concerning why millions of bees didn’t return home to their hives was because of cell phone pollution. Could too many, too-strong phone signals be a real cause for a collective suicide? Did it create a form of bee insanity? Or were the bees crashing like airplanes when cell phone signals interfered with communication to their base?

And perhaps this isn’t just about bees, but something larger and more ominous. “What we’re seeing with this bee problem is just a loud signal that there’s some bad things happening in agro-ecosystems,” said Keith Delaplane, co-author of the aforementioned survey, adding that the disappearance of bees is just one of the consequences of the mutation of the global ecosystem. “We just happen to notice it with the honeybee because they are so easy to count,” Delaplane argues, hinting at invisible but equally dramatic changes underway. It’s just that we don’t see them – yet.

Despite the fact that we humans tend to shoo them away, bees are crucial players in global agriculture. The United Nations took the worldwide collapse of the bee colonies very seriously. The Food and Agriculture Organization warned early on that, “out of some 100 crop species which provide 90% of food worldwide, 71 of these are bee-pollinated.

There are about 20,000 different species of bees on the world, and some of them are highly specialized – like Eulaema bomboides, a bee that pollinates only Stanhopea embreei, an orchid which blooms in a handful of South American countries like Ecuador. But most honeybees are not aristocratic. In my native tongue, we call them “working bees” because they work constantly, pollinating the majority of the worldwide crop, worth hundreds of billions of dollars. Apis mellifera, commonly known as the western honey bee, dominates the bee population in Europe and North America. Without the western honey bee, agriculture would collapse worldwide. But the bee is now seriously endangered in both Europe and North America.

But if both continents are treating the same planet-threatening disorder, Brussels and Washington seem to be prescribing completely different medicine. Two years ago, the European Union enacted a ban on the class of pesticides, neonicotinoids, which it believes harm global bee populations, according to scientific studies.

In the United States, things are moving slowly and in a different direction. Neonicotinoids, pesticides created by American companies in the ’80s to protect crops from various insects and parasites, could be just one of the possible factors for the collapse of bee colonies, argue American experts. According to the prevailing theory here, the so-called “colony collapse disorder” that is threatening bees is the consequence of a complex set of stressors and pathogens. This includes the viscous parasitic mite Varroa, various virus species, bacterial diseases and increasingly poor nutrition.

Contemporary with the latest alarming survey on colony collapse, National Geographic published a fascinating story entitled “Quest for a Superbee.” The magazine even provided a video about the life of the Apis mellifera for its iPhone owners and Facebook followers. It is amazing. In the article, writer Charles C. Mann describes the history of the honeybee and explains all the ongoing U.S. research efforts to save the insect.

It somehow does not surprise me that a corporation like Monsanto, a major producer of GMOs and chemicals to protect crops, is involved in this complex effort. Its goal seems to be to create a perfectly immune bee, one that can exist alongside Monsanto’s genetically modified crops and pesticides. But there is more. Mann also discusses Harvard University’s RoboBee project, whose goal is to create tiny, pollinating drones. “Autonomous robots identify flowers by color, hover above them, and insert soft probes that pick up pollen. It might take the pressure of real bees,” Mann writes. National Geographic’s story is a wonderful product of modern editing and digital journalism, but it scares me.

Superbees and robobees? In an article for truth-out.org, Reynard Loki suggests that the present bee-pocalypse is the battleground of yet another war between commercial and environmental interests.

While looking into how our neighbors across the ocean are dealing with the bee epidemic, I struggled to get through an incredible amount of bureaucratic paperwork before I could extract any useful data. But the silent and introverted Europeans seem to be doing better than their American counterparts. No fantastical stories in Europe of drone-like bees made to take the place of real-life bees, and this little document may even indicate that the honeybee is there to stay. At the very least, I could not find the smallest trace of a quest for a superbee.

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