Friday, April 30, 2010

Disappearing Honey Bees: the little guy who brings food to our table

The past week has seen some major ecological issues - from oil spills to the commercial shark fisheries to entire seas at risk. Let's finish the work week with a look at something a lot smaller: Apis millifera - the honey bee.

To many people, bees are responsible for two things: honey for our toast or tea, and a tender red welt (or worse) if we happen to get stung. For years, we have followed news reports of the expansion of the African killer bee; a more aggressive strain that was migrating from South America northward and establishing its own colonies or cross-breading with other species. While the aggressive nature of this particular species is certainly a point of concern, there is a greater threat to bees and humans alike.

The populations of honey bees have been in steady decline, often identified as CDD (colony collapse disorder) and responsible for declines in many areas, ranging from 30 percent to as high as 90 percent. The U.S. government has reported declines in bee hives in the last three years (2007 thru 2009) by 32, 36, and 29 percent, respectively. Since bees are the primary pollinators for many fruits and vegetables, this represents a major multi-billion dollar threat to the agricultural industry. In fact, it has been reported that as much as a third of our food is due to the actions of the honey bee.

"Honey and royal jelly are examples of precious food that we owe to bees but foremost we owe them abundant harvesting of fruits and vegetables since they contribute to pollinate the flowers which will produce the harvest," said Bernard Vallat, the Director General of OIE (World Organization for Animal Health). "Bees contribute to global food security, and their extinction would represent a terrible biological disaster."

The OIE has issued a report that points to a combination of issues which are conspiring against the honey bee. The extensive and sometimes irresponsible use of pesticides can weaken the overall health of the bee, exposing it to other diseases and pathogens - some old and some newly discovered.

Also, invasive species can take their toll (like Europe's recent intruder, the Asian hornet, which hunts and devours bees in mid-flight). Various mites and parasites attack bees and their numbers have increased in various parts of the world due to changing conditions, in some cases brought on by changes in climate.

Adding to all of that, as much as we depend on bees for our agricultural output, we don't make it easy for them. Large mega-farms, that look to bees for their cooperation, provide poor nutrition for the bees by stripping away wild flowers and shrubs. I have seen this on drives up California's central valley (the state's agricultural "breadbasket"). Row after row of fruit and nut trees with white man-made bee hives constructed throughout the orchards - but with nothing else in the area for the bees to feed on.

Insignificant to many, the honey bee actually plays a major role in our ability to feed ourselves. And it is under attack. There is no "silver bullet" solution. As much as we like to gravitate towards those simple answers, what is required here is a comprehensive approach. The cascade of influences impacting the health of the honey bee can have profound economic and health implications right in our own backyard.

Without the simple honey bee, mankind can really get stung.

Read article from the Mother Nature Network.

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