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O Where O Where have the Honeybees Gone

O Where, O Where have the Honeybees Gone?

by Jeffery Goss, Jr. of Springfield, MO

Late this winter, thousands of American beekeepers opened their hives, expecting to find the brood chambers acrawl with bees “minding their own beeswax.” In fact, that’s what many of these beekeepers did find. However, some beekeepers were bewildered to find their hives empty, or nearly so. Often there would be small populations of brood left in the chambers; in other cases, though, the hive would appear to be completely abandoned by its inhabitants. By early March, 26 states had reported the phenomenon, yet apiculture experts and beekeeping researchers had no explanation. Like the beekeepers themselves, all they could say was to quote Crossway (as in “Oh, my, my!”) and Kenny Bishop (as in “Lord have mercy!”).

Although many mysteries still shroud the phenomenon now known as colony collapse disorder (CCD), enough research has been done that we can now make some intelligent statements about what CCD is, what it is not, and what the scope of the problem is. First of all, what CCD is not.

  1. Cell phones and radiotelephones are NOT a cause of, or major contributor to, CCD. The disorder has been reported in places where cellular phone service is not even available. Furthermore, studies have shown no correlation between the likelihood of CCD occurring, and the proximity of cellular phone towers.
  2. CCD is NOT the same as the bee-killing, mysterious Ontario bee problem, which has caused many bees to have been found dead in that province. The Ontario bee death leaves dead bees piled in the brood chambers, whereas the CCD kills the bees while they are out in the fields. No true CCD has been reported in Canada or Mexico.
  3. The bees are actually dead. Some have speculated that the bees, due to some environmental or chemical disturbance in the hives, simply set up housekeeping in the woodlands. During a Coast to Coast talk show discussion on CCD, host Art Bell entertained this theory, remarking, “What if the bees just ‘rebelled’?…Say they moved their colonies out into the wild. Maybe they just said, like the song, ‘Take this job and’… well, you know.” However, no increase in feral swarms of bees has been noted. Furthermore, CCD may occur far from woodlands. This idea has therefore been rejected as an explanation for CCD.
  4. GWEN communications technology is not causing CCD. This technology has been in existence for 13 years. CCD, on the other hand, has existed for only four years (at least documented), and only this year has it become a major problem.
  5. Ultimately, researchers have concluded that CCD is not caused by any one thing by itself, but rather a combination of at least two factors, at least one of which is human-caused or greatly influenced by specific human activities.

Why do they come to that last conclusion? Primarily, they come to it due to the amazing respect that CCD has for national boundaries. It will ravage the bee population all the way up to the Canadian border, and go no further. In Europe, where CCD has also been reported, it appears to similarly avoid France and Italy.

Why France, and why Italy? Why Canada, and why Mexico for that matter? If this question can be answered, it may be the key to solving the CCD epidemic, and more importantly, the key to ending it. This may be as simple as banning a few chemicals, or ending the production of a genetically modified crop strain.

France and Italy stand out in that they have banned neonicotinoid pesticides. In France, imidacloprid has also been restricted, and had ceased to be used as a systemic pesticide (although one company has begun selling a new imidacloprid formula, with questionable legality). Imidacloprid has been known to kill bees, and this was the reason it was banned in that country. France and Italy, incidentally, are the world’s top beekeeping and honey-producing nations.

Hundreds of new chemicals are released every year in the U.S., most of them with little testing. Furthermore, some chemicals that do get tested are tested by the company that manufactures them, in biased and unscientific conditions. Researchers on the subject of CCD are still combing through lists of newly released chemicals pertaining to agriculture, attempting to find ones that are used in countries that have CCD, but are banned in Canada, Mexico, France, and Italy. This type of research is more difficult than it might sound, because there is no one comprehensive list of all these chemicals. Furthermore, lists are often complicated, and different sources may have different names for the same substance. Adding insult to injury, comparison of chemicals allowed from one country to another is complicated by language barriers. Many of the chemicals’ names are similar from one European language to another, but then again, many are not.

Another possibility is that GM crops are the missing piece of the puzzle. Proponents of biotechnology have loudly pointed out that the Bt gene, which is the most commonly spliced gene in GM crops, does not kill insects of the order Hymenoptera, which includes the bees. However, they are not telling the whole of the story.

First of all: the Bt gene does not kill bees, but could it not weaken their fragile immune systems and contribute to the problem? Secondly, the Bt gene is by no means the only gene that is used as a splicing-in gene by biotechnologists. There are genes from many plants and animals, spliced into corn, soybeans, and other crops. There are even human chimera projects, GM projects in which human genes are spliced into the target species. (For example, one laboratory has produced a chimera potato plant that produces “human” breast milk, by splicing genomic sections that are normally associated with the function of the mammary gland.) Claiming that “since Bt genes do not kill bees; argal, GMOs do not have anything to do with CCD” would be tantamount to saying, “Since my dog doesn’t bite, dog bites must not exist.”

A German study has shown that when bees consume pollen from GM crops, the bacteria of the bee’s digestive organ may pick up the gene, strange as it seems. A contributing factor to CCD (which seems to be a catch-all term, the more it is understood) may be the weakening of the bees due to changes in their digestive processes. Part of the problem with identifying the culprit causes of CCD is that the bees usually die outside in the field, so there are few dead bees on which to do autopsies. However, when a few dead bees have been found in the hive, their systems have been found to contain 2 to 3 times the normal number of fungi and bacterial pathogens. This suggests that the bees’ immune systems are being weakened.

There is also an observation, regarding the hives: that wax moths will not invade a hive that has fallen to CCD, until 15-25 days have passed or the beekeeper airs out the hive for 2-4 days. This strongly suggests a chemical aspect to the problem.

Research on the correlation between GMOs and CCD is progressing, although as yet inconclusive. So far, it is being done by apiculture research organizations. The phenomenon affects 26 states (Missouri is not one of them), and research is mostly taking place in the eastern half of the U.S. It is to be hoped that the main causes can be determined before October, when the decline begins to occur. The biotechnology firms, on their part, have so far not announced any study done on the subject. Yet even if the GM corporations did study the subject, and even if they do find a link, do you really think that they would tell anyone?