Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Plight of the Honeybee

Imagine a a group of wonderful young people from another country moved into your town and raised families of delightful children and grandchildren, all a credit to the community.  

Then imagine their children proved vulnerable to several diseases that killed off a good number of them. 

Imagine further that some of the family's distant cousins moved into your town and turned out to be criminals who damaged the family's reputation with their lawless behavior.  

You would still love that immigrant family, but you would worry about their future.

This is roughly the story of the American honeybee.


American Bees

North America is rich in bee species.  There an estimated 4,000 (maybe fewer, maybe more -- this, like all facts about bees, is disputed) indigenous types here.

All bees are descended from wasps, which fed on other, usually smaller animals.  Bees were variant wasps who took to vegetarianism and, in smaller groups, acclimated to particular plants, from melons in warmer climates to much rarer plants near the North Pole.

Honeybees in America

The most valued among American bees is the honeybee, who pollinate a a broad variety of plants and have become essential to agriculture of all kinds.

Interestingly, it is not a native.  Honeybees were introduced to the East Coast by immigrants who transported hives across the Atlantic in the 1600s and (in pre-Panama Canal days) around Cape Horn to the West Coast in the 1850s.

Today the American honeybee is in existential crisis.  There are several threats, according to scientists, among them these:

     ---  Habitat loss as humans build homes in formerly natural areas and farmers divert their efforts to cultivating crops like wheat and soybeans, which don't rely on honeybee pollination,

     --- Pesticide use, including accelerants of existing pesticides that appear to have even more deleterious effects on honeybee colonies and

     ---  Parasites, particularly the varroa mite, which carries fungal diseases that kill off honeybees and which honeybees transmit to their fellows before they die.

Around the country,  honeybee cultivators raise large quantities of the bees in hives that are then trucked around the country to work their pollinating magic on cruciferous vegetables, citrus fruits, nuts, clover, tomatoes, root vegetables and so on.

(Some challenge the necessity of honeybees for these purposes, suggesting that winds and other environmental elements could do the job as well.  As I said, there are many sides in all honeybee discussions.)

What nobody disputes is that Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has ravaged the population of honeybees in the United States and elsewhere.  In oft-cited cases, bees fly away from their hives, presumably die elsewhere and never return.

Other Insect Immigrants 

Unfortunately, other immigrant species threaten our bees.  The worst is the aforementioned varroa mite, an East Asian insect that began devastating European hives in the 1970s and arrived on our shores 10 years later.  While beekeepers are not happy about the effects of pesticides on their honeybees, they also are unhappy that no product or strategy has been developed to eradicate the varroa mite (which is yet another source of contentious discussion).

A second bothersome immigrant is the Africanized honeybee, which was developed -- on purpose! -- in Brazil in 1956.  Scientists cross-bred imported African bees with regular honeybees in hopes of developing a stronger hybrid honeybee.  These bees came to be known as "killer bees" because they were more likely to swarm in defense of their colonies.  When disturbed by noise or other irritants, they mass in large groups against intruders and issue multiple stings, sometimes fatally for human antagonists.

Since the late 1970s, Africanized honeybees have come to settle in southern states of the U.S.  Unfortunately these immigrant honeybees are not as industrious about pollination or honey production as the also-imported honeybees whom we now regard as natives.

The Real Problem

Humans are responsible for all of this.   Humans brought them to America, made pesticides that hurt their numbers, imported the plants that introduced the varroa mite and bred Africanized honeybees that aggressively invaded their habitats.

The problems facing honeybees are many in number, and and no solutions are in sight.  As in so many situations over the centuries, humans decide to improve on Mother Nature with unfortunate results.

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