There’s no debate that honey bees are critical to what we eat. Although specific percentages are subject of some debate, it’s a given that at least 50% of world food supplies are pollinated by bees, and that figure may be as high as 75%. Those figures include one third of all fruits and vegetables. Throw in honey, beeswax, and several derivatives thereof, and we’re talking about some $200 billion dollars in food crops: the importance of healthy bee populations is clearly highlighted.
Throughout the thousands of years that humans have practices some form of beekeeping, (apiculture), there have been serious incidents of die off among entire bee colonies – Disappearing Disease, Spring or Fall Dwindle, and May Disease were some of the names given to the phenomenon. That was before the early and mid 2000s, when the wholesale die off of honey bee colonies became so prevalent that it gained a new moniker – Colony Collapse Disorder. By this point, the problem wasn’t limited to a season or relatively small area; it occurred across North America and Europe.
What happens when CCD strikes is the wholesale disappearance of adult bees, with little or no dead bees evident in and around the hive. What’s left are the babies, known as capped brood, and the Queen. There is generally plenty of food, honey and pollen. In relatively short order, predators like wasps, other bees from a healthy colony, wax moths, and small hive beetles attack the depleted colony and destroy it outright. Where all the adult bees go, and why, remain largely unknown. Possible causal factors for CCD have been widespread, from mute infection and various pathogens, to immunodeficiencies, climate change, and loss of habitat.
Last year, a widely publicized Harvard University study claimed that to have identified a family of pesticides called neonicotinoids as the cause of CCD. Developed by Shell and Bayer in the 1980s and ’90s, neonicotinoids work on the central and peripheral nervous system of insects by binding to and blocking nerve cell receptors, causing paralysis and death. The group includes Imidacloprid, the most widely used pesticide in the world. Used for everything from pest control on pets to agriculture, Imidacloprid is sold under many brand names. Almost since their inception as viable pesticides, concerns about the environmental effects of neonicotinoids, and specifically their impact upon pollinators, has also been voiced. The problem seems to stem from the fact that the chemical accumulates in pollen and nectar of treated plants, potentially putting bees at particularly risk.
The Harvard study, which came out in the spring of 2014, and lead by Associate Professor of Environmental Exposure Biology Chensheng Lu, put neonicotinoids clearly in the crosshairs for CCD. No small part of the study and the media whirlwind that followed it was the contention that CCD has not only continued, but is expanding to this day. For a while, it seemed as if the world at large was game to buy into the findings, fanned by the media blitz. Lu became the darling of the green movement. Yet by winter of last year, bee experts were starting to disagree with Lu’s findings on some very fundamental grounds – What they noted was nothing less than a refutation of bees even being in the kind of danger Lu’s study posited – They stated without reservation that, while troubling, the mass die offs witnessed in the mid 2000 has in fact passed, and that bee colonies throughout the world had not only rebounded, but have done so at record levels.
Where things actually lie can be a bit difficult to ascertain. The truth likely lies somewhere between Lu’s eminent doom message, and the claim that all is well. Pesticides are certainly over used in our world. Just as the presence of anti-microbials in everything from laundry detergent to hand soap has quite likely lead to more disease resistant strains, an over abundance of pesticides does not help in the wild. As with so many things, it seems the biggest challenge we face in discerning what to do is the ability to wade through popular media, in order to adequately discern fact from fiction.