[Marxism] Who killed the honeybees?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue May 29 08:26:32 MDT 2007


Who killed the honeybees?
A round table of experts answer all our pressing questions about the 
sudden death of the nation's bees. What they have to say has a bigger 
sting than we ever expected.

By Kevin Berger

May. 29, 2007 | The buzz about the alarming disappearance of bees has 
been all about people food. Honeybees pollinate one-third of the fruits, 
nuts and vegetables that end up in our homey kitchen baskets. If the 
tireless apian workers didn't fly from one flower to the next, 
depositing pollen grains so that fruit trees can bloom, America could 
well be asking where its next meal would come from. Last fall, the 
nation's beekeepers watched in horror as more than a quarter of their 
2.4 million colonies collapsed, killing billions of nature's little 

But as a Salon round table discussion with bee experts revealed, the 
mass exodus of bees to the great hive in the sky forebodes a bigger 
story. The faltering dance between honeybees and trees is symptomatic of 
industrial disease. As the scientists outlined some of the biological 
agents behind "colony collapse disorder," and dismissed the ones that 
are not -- sorry, friends, the Rapture is out -- they sketched a picture 
of how we are forever altering the planet's delicate web of life.

The scientists constituted a fascinating foursome, each with his own 
point of view. Jeffrey Pettis, research leader of the USDA's honeybee 
lab, told us the current collapse is one of the worst in history. Eric 
Mussen, of the Honey Bee Research Facility at the University of 
California at Davis, maintained that it may only be cyclical. Wayne 
Esaias, of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, an amateur beekeeper, 
outlined his compelling views about the impact of climate change on 
bees. And John McDonald, a biologist, beekeeper and gentleman farmer in 
rural Pennsylvania, reminded us, if at times sardonically, of the poetry 
in agriculture.

First things first. The Internet, as you know, loves a rumor. Are 
cellphones killing the bees?

JEFFREY PETTIS: All the explanations that bees became disoriented by 
cellphone radiation, or this, that and the other thing -- there is zero 
evidence for any of it. All we know is we lost the worker population and 
they died away from the hive. What's unusual is they died over a short 
time period. Are they flying off to Nirvana? Who knows where they are? 
They are just dying away from the hive, which is normal.

ERIC MUSSEN: It's important to look at what's normal. In the summer, 
bees go through a six-week life cycle: three inside the hive, three 
outside it as foragers. Then they die of old age. When bees are coming 
to the end of their life for whatever reason, they just fly off and 
don't come back. They fly out to die because flying out and dying is 
what they do. The question is, Why are we seeing bees with such a 
shortened life cycle? Well, now we're talking about winter bees. As you 
move into fall, the colony is supposed to be rearing bees that have a 
long life expectancy -- from about October to March of the next year. 
The problem is the winter bees aren't making it. Everything just sort of 
fell apart near the end of this summer and those bees that were supposed 
to live up to six months didn't come close.

JOHN McDONALD: That cellphone thing is a major source of irritation to 
me. If it were true, I suspect about 10,000 people at Penn State would 
be lying on the street dead now. And yet you see them walking around and 
talking on cellphones. My son explained to me that cellphone radiation 
puts out a wavelength of about three inches. A honeybee is 
three-quarters of an inch long and so the bee is going to create 
virtually no shadow in that wavelength. That's one reason why I look 
askance at that theory. The other is where I live, in the middle of 
Appalachia, the bees are disappearing and there are virtually no cellphones.

One scientist has said solving the bees' disappearance is like "CSI" for 
agriculture. What's the latest word from the lab?

PETTIS: The latest word is we're working on a lot of different samples 
we've collected throughout the year. We're working under the idea that 
bees have suffered a one-two punch. The first is a primary stressor -- 
poor diet, mites, or low-level pesticide exposure. That puts them in a 
compromised or weak state, and then a secondary pathogen takes over. 
Because of how quickly the bees are dying, it seems most likely a 
pathogen would be involved. So we're looking for a secondary pathogen 
that might be unique or novel.

Are pesticides a major culprit?

MUSSEN: Perhaps 10 percent of commercial bee colonies in any given year 
are either severely damaged or die on contact with agricultural 
pesticides. But there's no reason to believe the exposure this year is 
any different from last year or any other year.

John, you wrote a pretty strong opinion piece that fingered Bt crops, 
which have been genetically modified to control insect pests. Based on 
your experiences as a beekeeper, how did you come to that conclusion?

McDONALD: My first collapse started last summer when a powerful colony, 
in a manner of a week, went downhill. The drone cone sort of cascaded 
down over the foundation like ice on a mountain. In another hive that 
was equally strong, the bees ended up lying dead on a mat that extended 
about six feet. That didn't happen with the other hives, which is 
indicative of agricultural poisoning. Also, the drones hung around until 
snowfall, which is unusual, indicating some kind of kind of behavioral 
dysfunction with the worker bees.

I did a little research and found two studies about the Bt phenomenon. 
When you look at the action of Bt gene proteins taken up in the gut of 
insects, including bees, you find an enzyme that gobbles its way through 
any protein there and affects the insects. And bees are known to forage 
on corn flowers to get pollen to rear their young brood. I'm not saying 
Bt is the sole cause of collapse, only that I would like to have it 

Is there any evidence, Jeff or Eric, of Bt crops killing bees?

MUSSEN: When Bt crops were being used in the fields to control 
lepidopteron insects, or butterflies, there were a significant number of 
studies run to try to determine whether or not incorporating Bt into the 
food of the adult bees, or the larvae, would hurt the bees. And the 
answer was no.

PETTIS: I contributed to a recent study where we directly fed the Bt 
toxin to whole bee colonies and could demonstrate no effects on them.

MUSSEN: There was a study, and perhaps this is the one John is referring 
to, that showed the active chemical in these Bt cultures is a protein 
crystal that develops in organisms. For four years in a row, an 
institution fed that protein to honeybees at 10 times the amount that 
they would ever encounter in the field if they were feeding on pollen. 
In three of the four years, they saw nothing out of the ordinary. In the 
fourth year, a parasite showed up, and the bees that had been consuming 
the protein appeared to suffer more. The experiment didn't say the Bt 
protein gave the bees the "disappearing" disease, or that it killed all 
of them; it just said the bees that came in contact with the crops 
appeared to be more negatively affected by the parasite.

Can you tell us about your experiences with colony collapse, Wayne, and 
your studies to understand wider ecological causes?

WAYNE ESAIAS: Sure. I'm a small beekeeper. I have about 15 colonies and 
have experienced some loss. I realize there are many symptoms involved. 
Still, there are one or two I'm puzzled about. I keep records of when my 
bees collect pollen and nectar in my backyard. I weigh the hive and I 
have a time series that goes back to 1992. What I've seen over the 
course of that time is due to local warming: The pollen and nectar flow 
come almost a month earlier than they did in the 1970s. This is 
coincident with the urbanization of the D.C.-Baltimore area, causing 
temperatures to rise.

I'm also using data from NASA satellites to address how global warming 
or environmental change might be impacting our honeybee populations, and 
even the spread of the African honeybee. We see plants blooming at 
different times of the year, and that's why the nectar flows are so much 
earlier now. I need to underscore that I have no evidence that global 
warming is a key player in colony collapse disorder. But it might be a 
contributor, and changes like this might be upping the stress level of 
our bee populations.

One new study suggested the collapse might be the result of a rare spore 
called Nosema ceranae.

MUSSEN: If you get enough Nosema ceranae, yes, a colony will die. If you 
get enough viruses, the colony will die. If you get enough mites, the 
colony will die. If you get exposure to insecticides, the colony will 
die. So all these things that we are looking at are capable of doing in 
a colony. There's no doubt about it. So could a true lack of food. 
Literally, you could starve the bees to death. Beekeepers have 
accidentally done that many times. What you're going to find is that in 
most cases there is not going to be one factor that did them in; it's 
going to be a combination. This is the perfect storm for honeybees.

Millions of bees in California alone are trucked around from town to 
town to be used as pollinators on farms. That's got to be awfully 
stressful on them, right?

MUSSEN: Yes, it's a stress. But commercial beekeepers have been moving 
substantial numbers of colonies on trucks for decades. I'm not convinced 
that they're being moved more, or that it beats them up any worse that 
it did ten years ago. California beekeepers have told me that in a 
course of moving the colonies around in the back of the truck, they tend 
to lose 10 percent of the queens with each move. Some feel it's that 
high. But that doesn't meant that 10 percent of your bee colonies died; 
many of them will come back and you will still have a colony.

One researcher has said that the competition for food among the millions 
of bees used to pollinate almond trees in California could, essentially, 
be working them to death. Do you agree?

MUSSEN: Almond trees aren't the problem. It's what happens after the 
bees are done with the trees and are brought back to the holding yards. 
In late fall, there is basically no food -- after the almonds -- so the 
bees have to fend for themselves. Besides eucalyptus trees, there's a 
bunch of weeds that the bees can feed on. They don't get heavy and fat 
but they've got some food available.

PETTIS: Beekeepers are always looking for what they call "good pasture," 
places they can put the bees and not have to feed the bees themselves. 
Florida has an abundant and diverse set of floral plants, so the bees 
are not suffering. What's interesting is that there's a number of 
government control programs for invasive weeds. Beekeepers love invasive 
weeds. Most produce a lot of nectar for the bees. So there's been 
competition in some cities over getting rid of the noxious weeds and 
keeping them for beekeepers. But California is unusual in that 
beekeepers are doing what we are starting to call "feedlot beekeeping," 
where we are having to provide resources because there is just not 
enough food out there. And this is just to meet the almond-pollination 

MUSSEN: The real problem in California is that we've only had half a 
normal rainfall this year. So after the almonds, when the bees went out 
to find other things, there was barely anything there. What was really 
interesting was some of the bees looked like they were well on their way 
to establishing good colonies. They looked like they could live on the 
stored almonds they had picked up in the late summer and fall. But this 
time they collapsed. So that's the question: Why?

And what's your answer?

MUSSEN: I'm probably the strongest advocate in the United States 
suggesting that malnutrition was the underlying thing that set up our 
bees to be whacked by everything else researchers are looking at. 
Honeybees rely on pollen for protein, vitamins, fats and minerals. 
That's where their major "health food" comes from. If we are having a 
typical year, and the rains come, there aren't too many places in the 
United States where the bees cannot find their mix of pollens to meet 
their dietary needs and get them through a normal life cycle.

The question is, What happens when things don't go like that? Well, you 
get this blast of hot temperature, which is about the time the flower 
buds are forming and the pollen grains are beginning to form. What does 
that do? You get sterile pollen. A beekeeper could look into the hive 
and say, "I've got all kinds of pollen in there and the bees 
disappeared." Well, right, you've got pollen grains, but do they have 
any nutrition in them?

Anything that interferes with the availability of food, or the quality 
of the food, is going to be detrimental to the bees. They don't have 
much of an immune system, so the only way that they can resist being 
infected by a lot of things is when they have their innate resistance 
up, and the best resistance is when they're best fed. So my feeling is 
that their nutrition just wasn't what it was supposed to be, and they 
were susceptible when they should have been resistant. I think something 
happened at the end of last year in many places in the temperate climate 
around the world, not just here, and fouled up the bees' food supply. 
Unless somebody tells me differently, I'm blaming it on the weather.

ESAIAS: One of the things that I've noticed in my short little time 
series in my backyard is that I could pick out every El Niño and La Niña 
effect. These are normal. These short-term climate changes are normal, 
and our bee population and our natural pollinator population have seen 
them, and they can probably handle them. What is disturbing is the 
long-term trend. Maybe years of severe climate impact are going to be 
more frequent and it's going to be really difficult to pick them out as 
causative factors unless we have a coherent way of studying each one.

Could the bees be dying because once they are sent out to do their work 
as pollinators on farms, they can't find their way back to their 
colonies? Sometimes it seems like there are more mini-malls in America 
than flowers, and maybe the bees can't navigate urban land patterns.

MUSSEN: Land patterns would be the least of their problems. When a 
honeybee transitions from an in-hive bee to an outside bee, it flies 
back and forth around the hive for a few minutes. Then it backs off and 
goes further away. In the process, it is taking a bunch of snapshots. 
That's how it's going to navigate from that time on -- through those 
snapshots. It's going to learn the roads, the trees, the houses, and the 
part of the hive with the entrance it uses. Bees use those landmarks to 
determine where they are and where they are going. That's another reason 
why cellphone communication is not going to rattle them unless it 
completely fries their brains so they can't see anymore. But when you 
put them into the environment where they have been flying, they'll 
follow their landmarks home. So I don't think we have to worry about that.

McDONALD: I'm not sure. I've been thinking about the size of the current 
soybean and corn crop, which I think impacts on this. When we fly over 
the fields in a jet, we look down and think we see some pastoral idyll. 
But the truth of the matter is, we may be looking at a slow-motion 
ecological train wreck. I made some calculations, and the total soybean 
and corn crop, including genetically modified seeds, is in a 
neighborhood of 102 million acres. After a little basic arithmetic, that 
would be a strip of crops running from Pennsylvania to the Rocky 
Mountains. It would be 100 miles wide, and if you were flying over in a 
plane, it would take you four hours. When you look at that thing at that 
magnitude of disruption, you can't help but suspect that maybe there's 
more to the picture than meets the eye, when you consider the absolute 
scale of things, compared with natural environments where you still have 
weeds and flowers.

ESAIAS: Land use has changed drastically in the past 100 years. There's 
no question that urbanization is increasing at a fantastic rate. I was 
thinking, as I was listening to John, that a lot of these concerns apply 
to our native pollinators -- the things that live in the hedge rows and 
the woods -- much more so than to our managed bee colonies, which are 
generally cared for by beekeepers. Crops are a significant source of 
pollen and nectar for our bees and our pollinators, and there is no 
doubt in my mind that the flora quality is changing, even if we can't 
say whether it's for the better or worse just now.

McDONALD: You know, I was looking at my flowering trees the other day. I 
have a beautiful weeping crabapple, and my grandson, while standing 
under the tree, which was just heavy with blossoms, said spontaneously, 
"Last year that tree was humming with bees." Now there was one bumblebee 
on it. The small nascent bees and other little bee types are absolutely 
missing. Near that tree I've got acres of dandelions and you cannot find 
one of the native pollinators. And it's not just the honeybees; it's 
other pollinators like moths and butterflies. In many ways, their loss 
is probably more alarming or indicative of a deep problem.

PETTIS: We rely on honeybees for agriculture because we can move them in 
large numbers. And we know how to manage them. But the National Academy 
of Sciences recently published a study that showed that all pollinators 
-- which rely on a diversity of flowers -- are in decline. Whether it's 
urbanization, habitat fragmentation, or an increase in agricultural land 
use, something is severely impacting the native pollinators.

Colony collapse disorder was reported by commercial beekeepers. Is it 
also happening to bees in the wild?

PETTIS: There's very few places where we actually monitor the feral 
population. I know of a group in Texas that was following some wild 
populations of bees, and a Cornell researcher has found a group around 
Ithaca, New York. But it's often hard to sample those bees. We know that 
wild bee populations were decimated by parasitic varroa mites over time, 
and they've rebounded, probably due to natural selection for natural 
resistance. But I'm not familiar with data coming in from feral populations.

McDONALD: A few years ago, in a very remote part of the state, I found 
thriving bee populations that I assumed were feral. To help them along, 
I set up bait boxes and put in anti-mite strips. I slipped them in seed 
oil and made little puddles so the bees had to walk through the oil in 
this experiment I called "remote medication." But as the summer went on, 
the bees collapsed in spite of my attempts to help them. The feral 
population is just getting so hard hit that I suspect it's virtually 
gone by now.

Are scientists looking at how the climate affects the bees' favorite 
flowers and food sources?

ESAIAS: That's a good question. Most of the nectar sources in Maryland, 
my state, come from trees -- tulip poplar, black locus, and holly trees. 
There has been a great deal of research on plants and increased CO2 and 
warming. I tried to find out how temperatures would affect blooming 
dates, and there is virtually no information in the literature on how 
temperature affects blooming dates of our trees and how increased CO2 
concentrations affect blooming dates. There's lots of research that says 
it makes plants grow faster, and some of them, like poison ivy, become 
more toxic. But ecologists in general have not paid attention to the 
timing of blooming and nectar availability and quality of pollen.

McDONALD: That is so true. The only number that I go on is that an apple 
tree will bloom after 40 days in 40-degree temperatures. That boils down 
that simple formula.

ESAIAS: As a kind of a climatologist, I'm getting paid to study the 
impact of potential global warming scenarios on our ecology. There's a 
lot of research being done on carbon cycling, but without information 
about when the plants bloom and how the quality of the flora changes, we 
are in a poor position to asses the effect of changes in temperature and 
rainfall on our ecosystems.

Can bees survive climate changes?

MUSSEN: I can tell you that beekeepers take their honeybees north to the 
upper Canadian border and all the way down to the equator. If they're 
warm, they cool themselves by evaporating water, and if they're cold, 
they heat themselves by sucking up a little bit of extra carbohydrate 
and rattling their muscles.

So they're great adapters?

MUSSEN: They're going to handle it. The honeybees are not the ones I'm 
concerned about. I think Wayne will back me up on this: Historians have 
said that thousands of years ago, there were some pretty nasty 
fluctuations in the earth's weather. And through this period of time, we 
became and continue to be very good farmers. But for whatever reason, we 
are beginning to kind of move into a cycle where we are going to find 
more extremes than we used to have. The droughts may be hotter and 
longer, the storms and floods may be more severe. Things aren't going to 
be so nice in the future. But again, I think the honeybees are more 
likely to handle that as long as they've got some food available to 
them. But with some of these other pollinators, which we rely upon to 
keep the environment going for us, well, if they get knocked around too 
much by the weather, then that's going to be really consequential.

What do you think the disappearance of the bees teaches us about ecology?

ESAIAS: If I can go back to what Eric was saying, I too don't doubt the 
survivability of the honeybee. On average, it's going to do fine. But 
what we are dealing with now is a series of local effects. That doesn't 
mean we aren't going to see an average global increase of temperature in 
the future, if you believe the predictions.

What does it tell us about our native pollinators and ecology? That's 
such an exceedingly complex question that I don't know. It just puts me 
in awe of earth's complexity. If you ask scientists to predict what 
global warming will do to an ecosystem, and they don't throw up their 
hands and say, "Beats me," then it shows we have a lot of work to do to 
understand the complexity and responses of all of these insect and plant 
interactions, when they occur, and will they get out of phase.

McDONALD: I think there is a cautionary tale here. Look at the 
progenitors of the maize, the corn which was developed in Mexico. It 
took a long time for environmental researchers to find the original 
plant because as the maize became dependent upon cultivation, a lot of 
those genes from the wild corn had died off. There used to be 1,000 
small meat-packing plants, and if a problem arose at one, it was not 
particularly important to the other 999. But now with all these together 
as one vast factory, any problem that arises has instant implications 
everywhere. We're at the mercy of assembly-line farming and high-speed 
distribution, and maybe no accountability as far as the quality of the 
food. But I don't know how you do it. How do you get more people to go 
back to smaller farms? It's practically utopian to bring that up anymore.

It's amazing that an esoteric subject like beekeeping has erupted in the 
mass media. Do you think that's been beneficial?

ESAIAS: I think the media coverage is wonderful. I think we are facing a 
series of problems like this, problems that are environmental in nature, 
and this has been a real eye-opener for me as to how poorly prepared 
this country and countries around the world are in taking note of how 
climate change or global change will impact our ecosystems. Humanity is 
affecting our ecosystems, and it's very complex to determine whether 
this is due to environmental change or some disease. You can see now 
that it is very difficult to pull these things apart.

McDONALD: The media has done a very good job of telling all sides. But 
the problem is, how do you motivate people to change the way they are? 
Where I live, I try to live pretty low on the food chain and avoid the 
temptation of most of the things that people have. People are just 
incredible consumers and runners of fuel and buyers of gadgets. How do 
you change that? It's as if there's an ethical or a moral blank spot 
there. I don't like to preach, but it's pretty obvious: When you're 
killing the corn belt by growing fuel to run SUVs, there's a very bad 
disconnect somewhere along the line.

MUSSEN: Bees are a necessary part of our food production. If we don't 
grow our own cherries and apples, can't we just buy them somewhere else? 
The answer is yes. But do we want to become as dependent on foreign 
nations for our food as we are dependent on them for fuel? I would 
certainly hope the answer is no. I believe that the amount of food we 
exported to other countries last year was less than the amount of food 
we imported for our consumption. We use to be the breadbasket of the 
world. Now we're just one of the breadbaskets.

McDONALD: The basket case.

MUSSEN: [Laughs.] So to keep our industry healthy, we certainly have to 
keep our pollinators healthy.

In the end, are we the people the ultimate cause of the bees' collapse?

PETTIS: We're the ultimate cause in that we've changed the planet to 
suit our needs. We're running it to suit our needs and not the benefit 
of all the organisms around us. Honeybees aren't totally domesticated, 
but we have tried to domesticate them. We've tried to make bees more 
gentle and make more honey. In enhancing certain traits, we make the 
bees more susceptible to other things.

Do you think the bees will be back?

PETTIS: I do. I don't think we've gone that far in domesticating them. 
The bee population is very diverse and can withstand an onslaught of 
different things -- including beekeepers.

Research assistance by Jonathan Vanian.

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