David Bradshaw, an American beekeeper, has spent all his life caring for bees. But in February one year, Bradshaw opened his boxes to find half of his hundred million bees had simply disappeared.
Bradshaw’s experience, reported in the New York Times, sounds like a low rent horror movie. But the mysterious phenomenon dubbed ‘colony collapse disorder’ (CCD) is occurring all over the United States.
And if it continues, CCD may mean the extinction of the crops and food sources we rely on, and eventually, widespread human starvation.
CCD refers to the unexplained disappearance of bees from their hives. Every year since 2006, about 35% of the 2.5million bee colonies in the US report instances of CCD.
Bees have a structured existence: colonies contain a queen bee, a swarm of worker bees (also female, but unable to reproduce) and a number of male bees, called drones.
Drones exist only to mate with the queen bee, and once they’ve done their duty, the worker bees will generally drive them out of the hive by biting them and tearing off their legs and wings.
The hive itself revolves around the queen bee, so while worker bees always travel away from the hive to gather pollen, they will always return to the queen.
Beekeepers say the fact that large numbers of bees are abandoning a hive when their queen is still in residence shows something is wrong.
Additionally, bees abandoning their ‘capped’ (unhatched) bees in the hive is another sign of CCD, as is the presence of honey and pollen food stores.
Incidents of CCD have been reported in at least 24 states in the US, and to a lesser degree in Canada and parts of Europe.
No one has yet been able to provide a definite explanation as to why the bees are going missing.
The most recent study suggests that cell phone usage is to blame. Scientists reporting in the journal Current Science suggest that the radiation from cell phones disrupts the bees’ navigation senses, so the bees get confused and lose their way back to the hive.
However, the fact that cellphones were in existence well before the appearance of CCD makes this theory less likely.
Other theories behind CCD include the use of insecticides, the spread of viruses, malnutrition, bad beekeeping practices, and immunodeficiencies (caused by stress as the bees adapt to shorter, commercial breeding seasons).
The most recent theories suggest that CCD is caused by a combination of factors such as new methods of cropping and irrigation, as well as heavy use of pesticides and chemical fertilisers (organic hives don’t seem to be experiencing any problems).
Climate change and the arrival of the Asian hornet (which preys on bees) have also been cited as causes.
Honeybees don’t just produce honey. They are an integral part of our agricultural life cycle.
About 35% of the world’s crops need bees for pollination, and a recent Cornell University study suggested that honeybees in the US pollinate about US$14 billion worth of crops ever year.
Pollination is the process by which pollen is transferred in plants, enabling sexual reproduction for vegetables, fruit, cotton, and crops for cattle.
In the past, farmers have tried to use helicopters and giant blowers to pollinate, but none have been as effective as bees.
What it boils down to is that without bees, humans (and animals) face worldwide starvation.
Governments are taking the issue seriously. Since 2007, the US Department of Agriculture has spent more than $37 million on CCD research.
And on 19 July this year, Senator Tim Johnson announced that the USDA would provide more than $7 million in assistance to beekeepers who suffered CCD in 2009.
In the UK, a £10 million programme was implemented in June to research CCD and the general decline of bees and insect pollinators.
But for many scientists and environmentalists the answer is simple. They say that CCD is only one aspect of the general worldwide decline in honeybee numbers.
For them, a change to sustainable agriculture (i.e. reduced use of pesticides) combined with an effort to plant more wildflowers (for pollination), would be the first step in protecting our precious bee populations.