Ask Eartha: The burdens of honeybees
December 18, 2013
I recently watched "Vanishing of the Bees" and was extremely concerned about our pollinators. What do you think are the driving forces behind CCD and how do we save the bees?
— Jon, Dillon Valley
This morning my inbox screamed "Colorado High Winds! Arctic Cold Front! Protect Your Bees!" The email followed with explicit details on how to insulate backyard hives to shelter against this week's 80 mph winds and below zero temperatures. For me, the message was another reality check of the insurmountable challenges facing the honeybee.
By now, you've probably heard of colony collapse disorder (CCD), the term given to the continuous disappearances of bees across the globe. In summary, bees pretty much "pull a Houdini," leaving their hive void of body or note on the "why, how and when" of their disappearing act. CCD has puzzled most scientists while leaving a rift of causes and blame across the honeybee world.
CCD issues range from monocultures to mites with most in agreement that a combination of issues, over time, have deeply impacted the system, weakening the general bee population (as well as a host of other pollinators) to everyday elements and challenges.
I believe the strongest instigators behind CCD are most likely pesticides and industrialized agricultural practices. Systemic pesticides such as neonicotinoids are a fairly new technology to agriculture (increasing in public use in the last 10 years) and interestingly enough, correspond to the time when CCD reared its ugly head back in 2006.
Systemic pesticides are more than a toxic spray to plant leaves. Once applied to soil or seed, they are completely absorbed by plant tissue. Bees carry these toxins back to the hive via pollen and nectar. Once stored in the honeycomb, the pesticides essentially corrupt the entire hive by targeting the central nervous system of current and future bees.
In yet another correlation to CCD, systemic pesticides damage the bees' navigational capabilities as well as memory (i.e. the ability to find their way back to the hive). The fundamental problem lies in the pesticide's ability to compromise the bees' immune system. With no immunity, how else are bees supposed to ward off viruses, mites and bad weather?
More recently, a new solution to CCD has been presented by monster biotech corporation, Monsanto. Research is underway to determine if RNAi technology should be used to target the Varroa mite. These pests can destroy a colony of bees in less than four years by killing young bees and leaving the hive vulnerable to viruses.
A MIT Technology Review article by Susan Young stated, "The idea is that when a nurse bee spits the sugar water into each cell of a honeycomb where a queen bee has laid an egg, the resulting larvae will consume the RNA interference treatment." Monsanto scientists claim the treatment is harmless to bee larvae but when ingested by mites, the mite basically consumes its own "self-destruct signal."
BioDirect technology or as Monsanto likes to call it "agricultural biologicals" includes topical and seed treatments such as microbial (Bt) pesticides and the notorious Roundup Ready.
I have to ask, how is this technology any different than systemic pesticides — our problem? Ultimately, we should start to ask the same about RNA as we do about GMOs — what are the long-term effects? Which leads me to my next question … Is this the beginning stages of a genetically modified bee?
Regardless, there are no convenient scenarios to CCD. For example, systemic pesticides stick around for a long time. Even if we were to ban them like France (which I think we should), it may take years or even decades before we're able to reverse the damage.
It seems to me that the solution lies in the inherent practices of our current food system. Why are we supporting systematic technology that harms our soil, our food and our pollinators? Shouldn't we try to fix the underlying problems instead of developing new, virtually unmeasured and untested, quick fixes that could lead to more problems?
I think Maryam Henein, founder of HoneyColony, said it best:
"Perhaps antiviral remedies are the next generation of products used to combat agricultural pests and pathogens, but they don't deal with the root of our problems such as native bee extinctions and unsustainable agriculture (i.e. GMO crops, pesticides, and herbicides). In the end, we will still have a polluted environment."
Ask Eartha is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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