Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Bee Healthy = Bee Happy / Bee Dead = We Dead

Honeybees are used to pollinate the majority of humanity's crops around the world. Without them, fully half or more of our production of food would fail, leading to massive starvation and death worldwide. Bees have evolved for hundreds of millions of years, and are very good at what they do. But when humans arrived on the scene and started "hijacking" the bee's native abilities for our own uses, we messed with their system -- and not in a good way. Now it looks like we might be on the verge of a very steep, dark and treacherous decline.

Between pesticides, herbicides, genetics, selective breeding, the practice of monogenetic breeding and infection, we've put the honeybee on a path to potential destruction -- and our own health and future in jeopardy, too. While there are many non-honeybee pollinators out there (even many other bee species), the fact is that there aren't enough native pollinators to take up the slack if the honeybee populations crash and fail. We've not had a time in this country's history where such a large portion of the population are at a threat for starvation and disease -- even the great Dustbowl years didn't compare in the potential for overall crop devastation and failure.

What this will mean in the future, I don't know. It's possible that this massive, worldwide die-off is transitory and temporary, and over the next few years, the bee populations will recover. Or, in the worst case scenario, the populations are decimated permanently all over, and it could result in a total collapse of agricultural food production.

Think about it -- we're nearly to 7 billion humans on the planet (and well beyond that number of domesticated animals that depend on our agricultural food supply to survive). Based on conservative estimates, even if we restrict reproduction as humanely and efficiently as possible, the human population will probably not stabilize until well over 10 billion. Our food generating capacity right now is probably sufficient to feed all those mouths, but just barely (and let's not get into the difficulties and costs of distribution of food worldwide -- another great big problem area).

Now imagine if 25-50% of the world's food supply were cut down by the devastation of the bees. What consequences would result? Mass starvation? Rise of totalitarian states? Collapse of international alliances and accords? War?

The rising disaster in honeybees is only one facet of the greater problem, but without doubt, it's one that could have a rapid and devastating effect on the world economy and security within the next decade.


Gotham City said...

It is not any of "pesticides, herbicides, genetics, selective breeding, or the practice of monogenetic breeding" that is causing problems for honey bees.

It is merely invasive exotic disease pathogens and pests that have come to the rest of the world from Asia, where these diseases and pests were minor problems for their traditional hosts species.

The idea of deploying native species of bees in agriculture is more than merely misguided, it has directly resulted in the loss of at least two species of bumblebees due to diseases that were imported along with the bees bred for greenhouse use in Europe.

But there are solutions, such as training more beekeepers to be better educated and able to be part of the solution. And the solution has little to do with worrying about anything other than the vigilance required to stay ahead of the diseases and pests.

So, the price of honey is eternal vigilance. Nothing less.

See for an example of one such group.

Chuck Lunney said...


Thanks for your comments. I appreciate the insight of a professional beekeeper on this subject.

I'm no beekeeper, but from what I've read over the years, the threat is from a greater variety of sources than just "exotic pathogens and pests".

I do agree with you that moving to a mono-culture of honeybees worldwide, which obviously introduces non-native species into unprepared habitats, is one major aspect of the problem. One of its effects, which you note, is the loss of native species of pollinators, which obviously then can't take over the job if the honeybees fail.

Getting more beekeepers would be good, but unless we can figure out the solution to why the bees are failing worldwide, it won't prevent the collapse.

My point in this post was to try and open some eyes to the threat that a loss of one of our major crop pollinators would cause. Bees don't just pollinate fruit trees and private gardens -- they are the majority pollinator for the world's seed and grain crops, too.

You said that the solution was to "stay ahead" of the threats, but I think that's part of the problem. It forces us into a reactive, tentative position, rather than proactively identifying alternatives, solutions and combinations that will not only sustain and protect the bees, but all of our food supply. It's not a matter of worrying, it's about information, education and research to better understand the entire ecosystems involved.

Lose the bees, we lose those crops - and our food supply collapses. I'm not worried about honey production -- while I like it on my toast in the mornings, the bigger loss if the bees die off is that I wouldn't have any toast, anyway!