JOHN OSTRANDER: The Secret Death of Bees
Okay, I’m officially getting freaked out now.
It started with a small remark from the redoubtable Bill Moyers when he appeared on Bill Maher’s Real Time show on HBO. I started to do some research based on his remarks and it came to a head recently with an MSNBC report on their website. It’s a real life event called “Colony Collapse Syndrome.” What’s it about?
The sudden death of honeybees.
“And this affects me – how?” you might ask. “I don’t use honey. I’m strictly a Splenda man. (Or woman.)” The fact is, a lot of food crops need to be cross-pollinated to come to maturity and the principle way of doing it is with the honeybee. About one-third of the American diet depends on cross-pollination and the honeybees that do the job are dying out and nobody really knows why.
According to the MSNBC article, 80% of the cotton crop is pollinated by commercial honeybees. Same for 50% of the soybean crop. Use cotton or soybeans much? 60% of the alfalfa crop is pollinated the same way. Alfalfa hay is a staple for cows – low cost, good nutrition for the bovines. Drink milk? Having a Big Mac attack? Scarcity of an item increases its price and you can bet a jump in the price of alfalfa hay will be passed on to the consumer. Same for cotton or anything made with soybeans. How much do you feel like paying for your jeans? I haven’t even gotten into the fruit and nut cross-pollination done by bees – almonds, for example, are 100% dependent on bee pollination.
Cereal grains aren’t affected so we wouldn’t starve. We’d have to do without a number of items, though, or pay a heck of a lot more for them. Oranges, grapefruit, and tangerines, for example, are all 90% dependent on commercial honeybees for the cross-pollination. You could have your Cheerios in the morning but having milk to put on them or an OJ to go with it might be tougher to get or a lot more expensive to use.
As my Mary, a farmer’s daughter, also pointed out to me, alfalfa, soybean and clover crops (clover is also cross-pollinated) put nitrogen back into the soil. Very important in crop rotation. If you just plant corn all the time, you deplete the soil and – wham! – you’re headed for a dust bowl situation. There are indirect as well as direct effects from the death of honeybees.
What’s really weird is what’s happening with the hives. The onset is sudden. The beekeepers, after a few days, find that a hive suddenly is empty except for the queen and some very young workers. Bees don’t do that. They protect the hive at all costs. In the case of hives afflicted with CCD, the workers just disappeared.
There are no dead bees inside or around the hive. How eerie is that? Think of all the movies you’ve seen where somebody shows up and there’s nobody in a given town or city. It’s deserted except for one or two inhabitants and they don’t know what has happened, either. Hive City is empty. Moreover, the parasites and scavengers that one would expect to take advantage of an undefended hive to invade and pillage the food stores – haven’t. They’ve hung back.
This is the part of the movie where the scientist character furrows his brow and, with a dramatic musical underscoring, announces that something is not right.
The problem is, this is real life and the scientists don’t know why this is happening. The scientists, the beekeepers, the experts are not even certain it’s one cause. It could be environmental, part of a greater pattern of global warming. It could be stress caused by the fact that commercial beekeepers constantly move the hives from place to place and crop to crop. A major study’s early findings that came out recently suggests a parasite or a disease. The problem has now spread to 27 states in the continental U.S. and has been reported in Brazil, Canada, and parts of Europe. From all accounts, CCD is spreading.
Mitigating all this is the fact that the phenomenon is not entirely unknown. There have been incidents recorded as far back as 1896 of a phenomenon called dwindle – sometimes spring dwindle and sometimes fall dwindle. Colony Collapse Disorder was coined recently not just to make it sound more impressive but because the phenomenon is no longer tied to a given season and may not be a disease. Also, my readings indicate the current scale is far greater.
Could something else be used other than honeybees for cross-pollination? Sure – technically. There are other insects and means. For large commercial crops, however, no other method was as economically viable as the honeybee. While the crops might find a way to be cross-pollinated without the honeybee, the cost of it is bound to be greater. The cost gets passed on to us; food becomes more expensive. Either you find a way to get more money or you do without something else because you have to eat. This and the potential loss of revenue (which was about $40 billion in business in 2006) would have to impact the economy.
Nothing exists in a vacuum. When I did my research for my historical western, The Kents, I studied not only the dates but the times, the era, in which everything occurred. One thing affects another. We separate them so we can see the events more clearly, perhaps make sense of them better, but they occur in the context of a greater reality. The mysterious disappearance – the death – of these honeybees will affect our everyday lives in a profoundly negative fashion if not reversed. Right now, we’re at the stage where we’ve just noticed the problem and are starting to look for the causes. We’re behind the curve on this one and we don’t know how much time we have to find the solution.
When I was younger, there was a commercial whose catchphrase became very popular. Mother Nature was given a taste of a brand of margarine which she glowingly mis-identified as “my sweet, creamy butter.” On being informed it was margarine, Mother Nature started looking really pissed and, with a flourish of thunder and lightning, intoned with a deadly voice the catchphrase: ‘It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!”
Okay, Ma, okay. We got the message. Just. . . put down that cleaver, Ma. You’re scaring me.
Those interested in learning more about Colony Collapse Disorder may want to check the Mid-Atlantic Apiculture Research and Extension Consortium (MAAREC)’s site on the subject at l The FAQ section gives a good overview.
In addition, the popular quote about bees attributed to Einstein that roughly goes, “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left.” is probably just an urban legend. Check Snopes for a complete debunking. Sure sounded good though.
Writer / actor / playwright John Ostrander is man behind the typewriter at such vaunted comics as GrimJack, Suicide Squad, Star Wars: Legacy, Munden’s Bar and Batman. John’s got his own personal blog, too.