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Buzz, buzz, buzz...

I was hanging out with a friend this weekend, and you know what he said to me? "Mike, I'm not seeing enough POLJUNK posts on honeybees lately. Can you kick it up a notch?" Al, this one is for you...

Over at Salon, they pulled together a small panel of bee experts [ed - subscription or ad clickthrough req'd] to discuss the unprecedented die off we've seen this year. In a nutshell, they still don't know exactly what is causing the problem - they think it's a multitude of factors - but they also believe the honeybee population will rebound. This group seems to be more concerned with what the larger implications may be: if honeybees are suffering like this, what's happening to the other pollinators out there? Eric Mussen, from the Honey Bee Research Facility at the University of California at Davis:

The honeybees are not the ones I'm concerned about ... 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.


Here ya go.

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A Staff Report by the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board


Why are the bees disappearing?

Dear Straight Dope:

What in blazes is going on with the world's bees? I keep reading all these stories about how a significant percentage of the world's beehives are failing and that all the bees are dying. No one seems to know why, but there are explanations aplenty, ranging from global warming to mites to, of all things, cell phones! What's worse, some of these stories quote Albert Einstein's predictions that if the world's bees were ever to die off, owing to the lack of pollinators, humanity would follow about four years later. Is there anything we can do about this? If the bees all die, are there any substitute pollinators we can use? Or is Einstein right and we're all doomed? —Rich Swank, Orlando, FL

SDSTAFF Doug replies:

Not to brag, but thanks to Wikipedia I've become the #1 authority on disappearing bees. Type "colony collapse disorder" into Google and hit return – the top hit is the Wikipedia page I maintain on the subject. (In real life I'm an entomologist with the University of California at Riverside.) Here's a summary.

First and most important: There are some 20,000 species of bees in the world, and many thousands more types of pollinating insects. What you're hearing about, "colony collapse disorder," affects one species of bee – the European honey bee. That species happens to be the one global agriculture relies upon for about 30% of its pollination requirements. So while we're not talking about losing all the world's pollinators, we are talking about losing a significant fraction of them. That's the worst-case scenario, with the species wiped out completely.

Second, there's no reason at this point to think European honey bees are going to be wiped out, now or ever. The die-offs so far appear to affect some beekeepers more than others, sometimes in the same area. That's one reason scientists are so puzzled, but it strongly suggests the losses may have something to do with how individual beekeepers are managing their bees. The "significant percentage" of failing hives is still a drop in the bucket when viewed against the global population of honey bees, and there are lots of beekeepers (even in the U.S., which appears hardest hit) who have not had, and may never have, significant losses of colonies. Plenty of honey bees remain to replace the ones that have died. It's not yet time to scream that the sky is falling.

Third, it's almost impossible to get hard numbers on how many colonies have died recently, and how much of the current uproar is media hype based on guesses, estimates and anecdotal accounts from the handful of beekeepers who have had the most colony losses. If you talk to other beekeepers, most admit they have colonies die off every winter, but they don't always keep records on how many. A lot of the reports we're hearing are based on personal recollection rather than careful documentation. In other words, the scary figures you're hearing could be exaggerated.

Fourth, even the original report describing and naming the phenomenon explicitly says it's something that has been seen before (repeatedly), named before, and studied before – in all cases without coming to any conclusion about the cause. The researchers didn't like the older names for the syndrome (which usually included the word "disease," which has connotations about infectiousness that don't seem applicable here), so they renamed it colony collapse disorder. That point has largely eluded the press, with the result that most people think this is a new phenomenon, when in fact the researchers who described it note reports of similar die-offs dating back to the 1890s.

Fifth, if what we're seeing is indeed a recurrence of a century-old phenomenon, that's a pretty good argument against theories of causation involving things that haven't been around that long. Yes, it's an assumption that current and past die-offs have a common underlying cause. Some researchers don't accept that assumption – they're the ones proposing things like pesticides as possible causes, and they may yet prove to be correct, since some modern pesticides can indeed kill honey bee colonies in a manner consistent with the present symptoms. But the leading hypothesis in many researcher's minds is that colonies are dying primarily because of stress. Stress means something different to a honey bee colony than to a human, but the basic idea isn't all that alien: If a colony is infected with a fungus, or has mites, or has pesticides in its honey, or is overheated, or is undernourished, or is losing workers due to spraying, or any other such thing, then the colony is experiencing stress. Stress in turn can cause behavioral changes that exacerbate the problem and lead to worse ones like immune system failure. Colony stress has existed, in various forms and with various causes, as long as mankind has kept honey bees, so it could indeed have happened in the 1890s. Many modern developments like pesticides or mite infestations can also cause stress (in fact, many of the things theorized to be involved can cause stress, so it's possible multiple factors are contributing to the problem, not just one). Unfortunately, stress is difficult to quantify and control experimentally, so it may never be possible to prove scientifically that colony stress explains all this year's deaths.

Sixth, it's never a good idea to trust what the media are telling you. At least once in the present case the media got something completely wrong and created a huge mess: The story about cell phones was basically a misrepresentation of what one pair of reporters wrote about a study that they misinterpreted. In a nutshell, the original research didn't involve cell phones, and the researchers never said their research was related to honey bee colony die-offs. Even details like the alleged Einstein quote are dubious. No one has yet found proof that Einstein said anything about bees dying off – the earliest documented appearance of the "quote" is 1994 and, yes, Albert was dead at the time.

The bottom line? No one is certain what's going on, but a lot of the theories can't – by themselves – explain everything we're seeing. More important, the situation hasn't yet risen to the level of a catastrophe (except, sadly, for some of the affected beekeepers). If the same thing keeps happening every winter for another decade or so, then we might really start worrying. But for now, classifying this as a "problem with potentially severe economic impact should it persist" would be a more realistic assessment.

Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

[Comment on this answer.]

Staff Reports are researched and written by members of the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board, Cecil's online auxiliary. Although the SDSAB does its best, these articles are edited by Ed Zotti, not Cecil, so accuracywise you'd better keep your fingers crossed.

I think we are missing the issue regarding the bee die off. Its the canary in the mine shaft warning us there's something wrong either with our environment or something we are doing to it. Its telling us that we need to change our behaviors and what we are doing is destructive to the balance of our ecosystem. Meaning we need to live more in harmony with our ecosystem rather than changing the environment just because we don't like something about the current workings like GM crops, insecticides, artificial fertilizers, pollution, urban sprawling, habitat destruction, and on and on. Humans are responsible for these things and its our responsibility to fix them and keep our population under control so as not to have 3 times the population than are biosphere can handle. Us Americans are the most destructive in the amount of resources used per person. That's what this whole thing is truly about. We have made some real serious mistakes lets try to undo as much of it as possible.

I agree with you, Corey. To me, this is "just" a symptom of the larger impact all human activity is having on the environment. But this one happens to be a symptom that potentially has a very real, immediate effect. And on the pocket book at that - food prices could go up as a result.

I'm a bit less panicked after reading the Straight Dope piece that bryan includes above. But this isn't an isolated event, in terms of bad, weird things happening to the planet and its inhabitants. Something's got to change, that's all I'm saying.

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