When all the bees are gone

Bees occupy an essential role in ecosystems. One third of all our food depends on the process of pollination. A world without pollinators would be a fatal blow to food production. It should be understood that even from a purely economic point of view, there is no alternative but to protect the bees.

“The Birds and the Bees”… did you say ‘bees’ there? Did you know that bees are a fast declining breed from our home planet – The Earth. So, just a few decades from now you will have to rephrase the following: ‘The birds and the bees’, ‘The Queen Bee’, ‘Busy as a bee’…

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If bees didn’t exist, neither would human beings

Bees are our life savers

Is that all? Well, the situation is actually a lot more serious. The great modern day scientist Albert Einstein said it like it was, many many years ago. He had proclaimed that mankind would not survive the honeybees’ disappearance for more than four years. True or not – the importance of bees cannot be overemphasized.

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USDA Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said that honey bee pollination supports an estimated $15 billion worth of agricultural production, which includes more than 130 fruit and vegetables types, which form the foundation of a nutritious diet. Vilsack says, “The future security of America’s food supply depends on healthy honey bees.”

Newsweek has reported that honeybees are transported in trucks to various regions across the United States to pollinate an estimated $40 billion worth of the country’s agricultural produce each year. This means that every third morsel of food we eat is the result of bees and other pollinators. So effectively it means that your plate would be much less than full when bees are gone. That can also be said for the meat eaters. After all the cattle also feed on the produce which is pollinated by bees.

While the current food production is high, the question is, can we match Year 2030 food demands when the world population touches 8.5 billion from the current 7.3 billion level? We would need to become more efficient, use more sustainable methods, using lesser resources – and NOT neglect the bees.

Since no other single animal species plays a more significant role in producing the fruits and vegetables that we humans commonly take for granted, bees would be the “The” one animal on the planet that will either make or break food prices.

So what is the fuss about?

Why is there a bee in my bonnet?

Well let me tell you. Having a beehive at my home had been on my bucket list for a long while. I started to study up on how to maintain a bee hive and then, as if out of nowhere one day, I noticed one on the terrace of my home. It was an everyday delight to watch the bees buzz past as I tended to my terrace garden. But my bee-happiness was short-lived. One fine day I found a part of the beehive fallen to the floor.

bee-hive-2“But it was abuzz yesterday” – that was my first thought. But yes, there had been fewer bees for the last few days. What happened? And so suddenly! Yes, you guessed it. My beehive had fallen victim to CCD – Colony Collapse Disorder. An occurrence in which the entire honey bee colony is wiped out including the queen bee.

So what? Bees have a short life span – a few weeks only. The bees dying naturally is a phenomenon, which Mother Nature has accounted for during the last many million years that the bees have been around. But why was the whole bee hive abandoned so suddenly? Since 2006 the world has been witness to several such CCDs. And these instances are rising. Even though the bees have been around for millions of years as a species, this frequent CCD is a new phenomenon.

While it would take several decades for the research to undeniably point us to the culprit(s), we already know some of the likely causes for this sudden bee deaths:

  • Use of insecticides, herbicides, pesticides
  • Loss of habitat
  • Development of large monoculture croplands
  • Varrora mites
  • Apathy towards bees

Effects of BT crops
Monsanto’s contribution to the dying bee population is already established. The genetically modified corn contains an insecticide called Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt). Once ingested by the bees, Bt binds to receptors within the bee’s stomach lining that keeps the bee from eating. This eventually breaks down the inner stomach wall of the bee, making them susceptible to spores, bacteria and eventually death.

Other Insecticides
The insecticides are not only affecting the health of humans but are killing the bees as well. They are meant kill insects, aren’t they? Unfortunately these chemicals cannot differentiate our friends from the foes — so the bees are also in the firing line. Allow me to illustrate the effects of a specific insecticide called neonicotinoids: When the neonicotinoids reach the beehive, a highly toxic living environment is created for all the bees, endangering not just one bee, but the entire colony. This is one of the leading causes of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

It has also been established that when bees contact pollen contaminated with fungicides they were three times more likely to become infected by a parasite closely associated with CCD. Unless this great menace is checked bee extinction looms large on the horizon.

Reproductive capability of bees is gravely affected
We all know that the pollutants and all these chemicals are slowly affecting the sperm count of humans (average body weight of 60-65 kgs). Imagine the devastating effect it on the bees, whose body weight is just 0.1gm. It is an established fact that the sperm count in bees is reducing drastically. And if you go by body-weight basis, the damage is 650,000 times more in the case of bees as against humans. It is having a crippling effect on the bees and their colonies and a major cause of colony collapse disorder.

Mosquito Foggers
In many countries the civic authorities use fogging machines to fumigate mosquitoes. They use a mixture of diesel and pyrethrins and pyrethroids. This is deadly not just for the insects and the bees but also cats, fish and some dogs. (So cat lovers, dog lovers and aquarium owners – be careful.)

Is there anyone batting for the bees? The civic authorities silently admit that it does little, if at all anything, to control the mosquitoes. Foggers work well for the psychological benefits of the citizens. But it is poison for the bees and pets.

Malathion
Some civic authorities use malathion mixed with diesel for fogging, which is even more poisonous. Did you know that inhalation of malathion makes it more potent for the humans. It can also be absorbed through the skin, and when it reaches the liver, it forms a chemical called malaoxon, which is far more poisonous than malathion itself. So now you know why you feel sick from inhaling too much malathion laced noxious fumes.

The big culprit
The large monoculture crops that are becoming the order of the day are an oasis for pests, forcing the farmers to use large amounts of pesticides. Thousands of beehives are introduced for pollinating the crops each year. But the pesticides infect a big percentage of the bees which results in their death. The graph below shows that grim picture:

bee-colonies-loss-estimatesTake note of the increasing gap between winter loss and total annual loss. That’s a pointer to CCD. The farmers try to make good the bees by importing them. But this adds to the ever escalating cost of food. (*Graph courtesy – Bee Informed Partnership)

So is there no solution?
Here are a few things we could do:

  • First of all empathize with the bees. Understand that while they do make some honey for themselves, they do us a service like no other animal on this planet. Incidentally, even part of this honey – which is actually bee food – we take away from them.
  • Stop feeding them HFCS (High Fructose Corn Syrup) during lean months. Rings a bell? Did you say that excess of HFCS is bad for humans too? So then, so is the case with bees. Instead of forcing HFCS on them, save some honey for them for the lean months.
  • The urban people could plant flowers – any flowers, fruit and flowering trees. A variety of them, so that bees get flowers during most months of the year. Use your balconies, terraces, front yards, backyards, parks, roadsides, anywhere you can find any space. It’ll give you the added benefit of beautiful surroundings. It gives all round nutrition to the bees, which make them resilient to fight parasites and viruses. Ever wondered if you could survive on only rice, nothing but rice. You can’t, right? So is the case with bees. Variety of flowering plants and trees provide all round nutrition and are essential for robust bee health.
  • I know that large mono-culture crops are the order of the day. A necessity – to some extent. Large single crop farmlands of hundreds upon hundreds of acres. And once their short flowering season is over they are just food deserts. So break them down by planting flowering meadows, hedges, avenues. Anything for the bees to get to once the short flowering season of the mono-culture crops is over. This
  • Reduce the lawns, as much as possible. Lawns are nothing but a drain on our environment. United States uses 11% of their total weedicides, insecticides on lawns. The lawns are neither great oxygen producers nor provide a flora for our existence. On the contrary they contribute 5% towards pollution in their upkeep.
  • Reduce the use of insecticides. It’s difficult because we are now so used to it. This business is owned by large corporations, with budgets bigger than the GDP of most countries. Because these conglomerates hamper, influence and delay researches which go against their business interests. So we need to work wisely to slowly reduce the pesticide usage.
  • Adopt a beehive. I remember that as a child I used to see beehives hanging from trees, buildings, old structures — so many of them. Now they are few and far between. So, adopt a beehive. Keep it on your terrace, your garden, your park and provide them with flowering plants, trees, bushes. And keep the insecticides away. And see your world change.

Bees are inherently very strong. They can heal and protect themselves (except against mankind).  Once they get the right environment, they can take care of themselves and fight the viruses including the varroa mites. And they do not sting without provocation. In fact, a bee dies after delivering a sting. So obviously it does not want to resort to extreme measures unless it’s a fight or flight situation.

Hand Pollination
Do all of the above or get ready to hand pollinate your fruits and vegetables – like some parts of the world are already being forced to do. But remember hand pollination comes at a heavy cost. A person can pollinate only 5 to 10 apple trees a day. Compare this with the bees. They can visit upto 5000 flowers in a day. Just 2 to 3 beehives are sufficient for an acre of orchards. And with minimum daily wages looking northwards hand pollination becomes unviable except where labor is cheap. But with colony collapse disorder on the rise, and bees dying becoming a norm, United States has already started working on mechanical pollinators. Trials had been conducted in 2015 using electrostatic pollen sprayers. Theses have not shown any encouraging results and do not appear as an alternative to bee pollination in the near future. On the contrary, the amount of pollen these machines use, there would certainly be a new requirements of growing trees just for pollen!

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Hand pollination in progress (Photo courtesy: SIO House)
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Robotic insect

Robotic Bees
Yes you got that right! Scientists are working on robotic insects (what else is the option if we kill them all) that can also be used – or should I say – “programmed” to pollinate the flowers. But one single bee can pollinate up to 5000 flowers in a day. So it would be quite a long while before we can even match up their level of travails. Then there is the issue of cost. Bees are negative maintenance. Meaning, if we just let them live, they would help produce our food as well as let us have a bit of their honey. Though there are people who extract many a things from them – propolis, wax, royal jelly – the elixir of life, bee pollen, bee poison etc. In fact there is an entire industry dependent on bees.

Quite a difficult task it is to match up with the bees, isn’t it? So let the bees do their jobs and let us do ours. And then we can continue to tell our children about the “birds and bees”.

Pankaj Nigam

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