October 16, 2007 The Pump Handle 2Comment

You’ve probably heard about “colony collapse disorder,” the mysterious widespread die-off of bees that’s been worrying commercial beekeepers in recent years. Last month, researchers suggested that Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus was playing a role; parasites and overwork (and mobile phones) have also been suggested as possible causes. But Gina Covina, writing in Terrain magazine (via AlterNet), presents another hypothesis: bees are like canaries in coal mines, and they’re warning us that our entire system of industrial agriculture is breaking down.

Covina reports that one-third of all U.S. crops depend on honeybee pollination. Almost all of this country’s commercial bee colonies converge in California each year for almond pollination, then spend several more months being trucked to different states to pollinate other crops, including apples, blueberries, peaches, and oranges. While in transit and between jobs, the bees are usually fed high-fructose corn syrup and soy protein, meant to replace the nectar and pollen that usually nourish them.

These practices strain bees and make them more vulnerable to a range of problems – some of which have been building up over the past couple of decades, Covina explains. With global transportation, parasitic mites jumped from other species to honeybees; tracheal mites in the 80s were followed by varroa mites in the 90s, and worldwide honeybee populations declined. Beekeepers started using commercial insecticides to control the varroa mites, but the parasites keep evolving resistance to new chemical treatments. And now the bees have to contend with the fallout from GMOs and global warming, which makes their bad nutritional situation worse:

Of all these factors, many beekeepers judge varroa mites the most consistently debilitating. But there’s another weakening influence more obvious and more integral to the larger agricultural dilemma. It’s the stressor [UC Davis apiculturist Eric] Mussen calls the most important of all—bee malnutrition. High-fructose corn syrup and soy protein are not any more nutritious for bees than they are for humans (see Spring 2007), and bees in transit and between pollination jobs often must subsist on nothing but these non-foods. Compounding the problem, we’re talking genetically modified corn and soy, every cell of which contains a bacterial insecticide. Are bees not insects? US studies have indicated that Bt corn pollen does not kill healthy bees or brood reared on it, but a German study showed that Bt pollen led to “significantly stronger decline in the number of bees” in hives already weakened by varroa mites.

We do know that corn pollen in general is poor bee food, high in fiber and low in protein. The Midwest, up until now the country’s best bee forage habitat, this year is being planted much more aggressively to GM corn as a source for ethanol—aggressive meaning planting marginal areas and edges usually left to the asters and goldenrods that are high-quality pollen sources in late summer when bees need to raise the generation that will overwinter. Even when bees are out foraging for real nectar and non-GMO pollen, for much of the year they are likely to be ingesting a monocultured diet due to their use as pollinators for industrial-scale agriculture—nothing but almond, then nothing but apple, then only watermelon. They’re exposed to pesticides used on their forage crops as well. Oh—and one more influence to factor into the equation—very hot weather can damage the protein content of pollen, decreasing its food value for bees. Global warming is kicking our butts from more directions than we can comprehend.

In short, our industrial agriculture system has messed up the bees’ food – and we’ll be seeing the consequences on supermarket shelves. While we might chafe at the reduced availability of our favorite produce, though, the ultimate result might be a shift towards more sustainable agriculture. Covina writes:

Suddenly terms like “organic” and “biodiversity” shift from boutique buzzwords to elements of survival. This country has 4,500 species of native insects that are potential pollinators. On the East Coast, where farms are much smaller, more diverse, and broken up by uncultivated land, native insects account for up to 90 percent of crop pollination. Studies done on Costa Rican coffee crops have shown that yields are 20 percent greater within one kilometer of forest remnants. Canadian canola farmers show increased yields by leaving 30 percent of their cropland wild. It’s all about pollination.

Fortunately for us, insects are quick to recolonize formerly dead areas. Hedgerows, windbreaks, wetlands, woodlots—the particulars of restoration agriculture are easy and already known. It’s the big picture that’s harder to shift, from the extractive industrial petrochemical model to the biodiverse ecosystem model.

Will we heed the bees’ warning? Or will our industrial agriculture system have to collapse completely before we’ll change?

Liz Borkowski works for the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) at George Washington University’s School of Public Health and Health Services.

2 thoughts on “Bees as Canaries

  1. Great post. I hadn’t heard about this, although I have read in the past about pollen from GM corn killing monarch butterflies. I wonder how else GM crops are hurting our ecosystem. Not to mention global warming. One wonders what it will take to make everyone realize we need to start taking these issues more seriously.

  2. really well done. We cannot live on bread or corn bread alone with or without HFCS, and soy is not meat or milk to mankind. Gm is not acceptable to man or bee. It may not kill us outright , but if it weakens us enough we will die of illness it engenders. Like the bees are now. No proof? well no labels -precludes any means of Proof.

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