Concerning Bees: The Fear Factor

The bees are dying.

They are dying of a strange disorder that causes the worker bees of a previously thriving honeybee hive to just fly away and never return. The brood (larvae) are left capped in their cells in the hive, with no one left to care for them. (Typically, adult bees will not leave a hive until the brood chambers have been uncapped.)

Thus far, no single cause has been found for this disorder, dubbed “Colony Collapse Disorder,” or CCD, while bees from across the United States, some parts of Europe, India, and South America eerily continue to die, silently and without warning.

And we will all die with them, because the tiny European honeybees are the pollinators for most of our food crops.

Who says?

Albert Einstein supposedly said so. “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.”

If that doesn’t scare the bejabbers out of you, nothing will.

And why is this happening?

Well, it could be the fault of genetically modified crops, otherwise known among the doomsayers as “frankenfood,” or it could be caused by cell phones making the bees’ homing instinct go awry so they cannot find their way home. Instead, they buzz around lost until they just fall down dead and exhausted. Both of these hypothesis have been put forth loudly in the media, with the significant subtext that this die-off is “all our fault, we are the ones to blame, and we should die for it.”

Or at least be scared to death over it.

It all sounds like a Twilight Zone episode, full of the creeping horror that in a very short span of time, civilization will collapse and most of humanity will starve to death, all because of the extinction of a single species of insect: the honeybee.

Scare-mongering sure sells newspapers, but it doesn’t necessarily make for a good understanding of a complex subject.

You see, the fact is, Albert Einstein probably didn’t really make that eloquent, chilling statement about bees and humans which is widely attributed to him. The first known use of that quote was in 1994, long after the esteemed scientist was dead, and so far, no one, including historians and scholars of the life of Einstein has reliably been able to trace that quote back to him having said it before he died.

In fact, the quote was probably made up and attributed to him for political purposes by a European beekeeper in 1994 during a spate of protests on the issue of cheaper imported honeys making it difficult for local beekeepers to stay financially solvent. I suppose that the real author of the quote will probably never be known, and it really doesn’t much matter–the fact is that even if Einstein -did- say it, and he was a genius, it doesn’t make the information contained in it factually correct. Einstein was a genius, yes, but a physicist, not a biologist or entomologist, so really–how could he predict the death of humans four years after the death of honeybees?

Not only did Einstein likely not make that famous dire prediction, but the issue of CCD is both more complex than most of the media is trumpeting, and likely not as apocalyptic.

In fact, it may not be a new phenomenon at all.

I bet most of you were wondering when I would jump in and post on the news stories related to CCD; it is a classic sort of story for Barbara to be concerned with and write about.

I haven’t before now for several reasons. First of all, while I read the very scary reports, including that quote from Einstein, which tied my stomach into knots and made me cradle my infant daughter, Kat, closer to my bosom in a seemingly futile gesture of protection, I was wary of jumping in on the “gloom and doom environmental apocalypse bandwagon” and adding my voice to the mounting media hysteria.

I wanted to hold off and do a bit of research and wait and see if there might arise some more moderate voices of reason from the scientific community.

I also wanted to take the time to talk to some beekeepers around here in Ohio and see what they had to say. (And what they said, each and every one of them, made me take a step back, a deep breath, and start digging a little deeper before running around like Chicken Little, screaming, “The end of the world is nigh!” Thank goodness for calm, reasonable bee keepers, including my friend Angela who said, “Oh, I really wish the newspapers wouldn’t write about this bee business yet. They always make it sound worse than it is. Bees die off periodically–it is what they do. But the world isn’t going to end over it now–it has been happening for years.”)

And I had been sitting on it for a while now, and probably still would be sitting, and writing about a really nice recipe today, if I hadn’t checked out Salon today to see this headline: “Who Killed the Honeybees?”

For all that the headline is pretty sensationalistic, and the graphic used to illustrate the article is way over the top, the piece itself, which is a round-table discussion/interview with four different experts on honeybees and CCD, is pretty informative and interesting.

And not nearly as scary as the editors made it sound like what with their headline and graphics choice and all.

The four experts had widely divergent views on the phenomenon of these honeybee die-offs, divergent enough to paint a clear picture to me that there is no consensus as to how bad CCD is, how widespread it really is, what could be causing it and how much it has to do with human ecological disruption.

Jeffery Pettis, research leader of the seriously underfunded USDA honeybee lab is of the opinion that this die-off is the worst in recorded history. He is also of the opinion that genetically modified crops are not at fault, and believes, in fact, that CCD is likely caused not by a single factor, but two or perhaps three co-factors working together in tandem. He believes that stressful conditions for the bees may be compromising their immunity to disease or parasites, combined with drought conditions which lead to less nutritive pollen for the bees which can lead to starvation, further stress and an even more compromised immune system.

Eric Mussen, of the Honey Bee Research Facility at the University of California at Davis, points to the fact that similar die-offs have occurred historically, and it may simply be cyclical. He also notes that the genetically-modified Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis–a species of bacteria which has been used by organic farmers to control insects for years–crops are now being grown that include the Bt within the plant tissues themselves) crops may have weakened honeybee’s immunity to parasites.

Wayne Esaias, of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and an amateur beekeeper who has kept careful records of the weather and its effect on his backyard bee hives for years, is of the belief that the erratic weather patterns caused by global warming is at least a factor in CCD, if not the sole cause of this troubling disorder. He cites the fact that the pollen and nectar flow of summer comes, on average, a month earlier now than it did in the 1970’s. This abrupt change in food supply may have come too quickly for honeybees to usefully adapt, thus somehow precipitating the unusual behaviors seen in CCD.

John McDonald, a biologist, beekeeper and farmer is pretty sure that genetically modified Bt crops have something to do with CCD, even though both Pettis and Mussen disagree with him. He wrote an eloquent op-ed piece recently for the San Francisco Chronicle on the subject outlining his concerns.

About the only thing that these experts agree on when it comes to CCD is that there is a problem, and cell phones probably are not causing it.

Two troubling facts jumped out at me as I read the Salon article.

One is that intensive monocropping, which is where acre after acre of nothing but a single variety of crop is planted–which is standard operating procedure for modern industrial farms–may be related to loss of food plants for bees and other pollinators to eat when the agricultural plants are finished blooming.

The other is that the National Academy of Sciences recently published a study that showed that all pollinators, not just honeybees, but native bees, butterflies, and wasps, all of which rely on a diversity of flowering plants are declining. No cause is known, but expanding urbanization, habitat loss, and ever-increasing monocropping and pesticide use may all be to blame.

Those two facts hit home for me, because when we lived in Pataskala, we lived very close to the largest orchard in Ohio, as well as down the road from a local hobby beekeeper. We also inherited a large garden, which included sweeping beds that were empty of all but foundation plantings: a few flowering and fruiting shrubs–lilacs, wiegela and barberry primarily–a picturesque stand of river birches, some hardy bulbs and about eight acres of woodlands.

Since our home looked architecturally like a witch’s cottage in the woods, we chose to emulate the English cottage garden in the abandoned beds and borders which came with our home. The herbaceous borders were largely empty, so we filled them with a plethora of blooming perennials, annuals, shrubs, herbs and vegetables, in a crowded, floriferous display of rampant blooms and foliage that lasted for three seasons of the year. (All of the photographs illustrating this post came from that garden.)

Over the three years we lived there, our wildly overgrown and productive gardens were a hub of insect and bird activity. Not only did we have honeybees galore buzzing over from our neighbor’s hives, we had plenty of other pollinators, too: native bumblebees, carpenter bees, butterflies, wasps, moths and hummingbirds. I even managed to see and photograph a rare sight–a hummingbird moth.

Since we have moved to Athens, however, I must say–I have not seen nearly the same amount of activity. This likely has to do with our lack of as large a garden. As we work to put together Kat’s garden, and in years to come, as we terrace the huge back slope and turn it into a productive space filled with a diverse group of flowering plants, I suspect that we will once more see a large amount of insect pollinators.

At least I hope so.

At any rate, though I wasn’t nearly as disheartened after reading the Salon article as I could have been, I was still downcast, until I ran across today’s posting on The Straight Dope concerning the very topic of CCD. Written by Douglas Yanega, an entomologist from the University of California, Riverside, who has been maintaining the Wikipedia page on the subject of CCD, the overview is succinct, and highly skeptical of the idea that this particular bee die-off is as apocalyptic as most of the major news media is making it out to be.

Yanega says, “… 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.”

So there we are: the sky isn’t really falling, every honeybee in the world isn’t going to die tomorrow, and we humans are probably not going to starve to death within four years. I could feel that knot in my belly begin to relax a wee bit. I highly suggest Yanega’s two articles and the Salon piece as a remedy to the fearmongering that has been running rampant in the media on the issue of bees up until now.

Mind you, CCD is still a puzzling, and the decline of native pollinators is still bugging me. (No pun intended. No, really.) But, it is good to know that I don’t need to freak out over the issue and neither do you.

That said, I would still like folks to get out in the garden, and plant some extra flowers, you know, for the sake of the birds and the bees. (And yourself. Because, playing in the dirt is good for you. )

Add to the diversity of your local biosphere by finding out what flowers and plants attract butterflies, hummingbirds and bees, and plant as many of them as you can cram into whatever patch of dirt (even if it is a pot on your deck) you can. Every little bit helps, and not only that, but looking at flowers helps to lower your blood pressure after reading scary headlines like, “The BEES are DYING and SO ARE WE!!!!!”

You can even go a step farther, like my friend Angela, and keep a small hive of bees in your own urban garden.

Urban beekeeping is on the rise in the US, Canada, and the UK, and may help boost the number of pollinators in any given area. It also would give you a local supply of honey that came primarily from your own flowers, grown on your own land. That is pretty darned cool.

Basically, what I am advocating is this: don’t worry so much, or if you are worried–get up and do a little something to alleviate it.

Whether that means reading a little deeper, beyond the screaming headlines, or planting some monarda and echinacea, or even installing a beehive in your backyard, doing something about what is stressing you is a good bit healthier than just fretting and losing sleep over a seemingly insurmountable issue.


RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. Thanks for the even-handed information. I have organic gardens of flowers and veggies and also have many bees, wasps, birds, butterflies, etc. I agree — if we all do our part to provide a welcoming habitat, we can help counteract some of what the modern world takes away.

    Comment by AuthorMomWithDogs — May 29, 2007 #

  2. Thank you for the very thoughtful post. I’ve read here and there about this but this is the most comprehensive and understandable piece that I’ve read yet. I have a very overgrown (on purpose) California wildflower and native plant garden and I’ve noticed that I do get a lot of the birds and the bees humming around. So, I try to do my tiny bit and hope that all the information helps change the situation for the better.

    Comment by Nancy — May 29, 2007 #

  3. barbara, thank you for this wonderful post. it not only tells us about bees. it is a wonderful example of how to approach a subject with an open mind and even-handedness.

    Comment by bee — May 29, 2007 #

  4. another informative post…thanks barbara…

    Comment by sia — May 30, 2007 #

  5. And let’s all keep in mind that no grains are bee-pollinated. Grasses, including grains like wheat and corn, are wind-pollinated. Everybody knows that corn is wind-pollinated and that’s why you should plant corn in blocks instead of lines — except everyone sure seems to forget this when hit with scary articles about bees.

    Whoever made up that idiotic “Einstein” quote appears to have forgotten that grasses are wind-pollinated, rice is essentially self-pollinating, most big trees are wind-pollinated, etc etc. Apocalypse . . . not likely.


    ps — I may never have read a more beautiful essay on the internet on any topic than yours on panch phoron.

    Comment by Rachel Neumeier — May 30, 2007 #

  6. We have lived in our present house for 9 years. When we moved in we (like yourselves) had only a little foundation planting in our largish yard of otherwise weedy grass. Now the yard is at least 70% poorly controlled mostly perennial garden.

    And organic. Here the determinate for ‘organic’ is 6 years without chemicals, which I felt was purely arbitrary until my yard passed this marker and I had, that summer, about a 200% increase in bird and insect activity.

    Now I’m considering a bee hive, thanks to you (always a good read).

    Comment by wwjudith — May 30, 2007 #

  7. […] May 30th, 2007 by Kirsten Barbara over at Tigers & Strawberries has an interesting post in which she puts the recent bee die-off hysteria into perspective. […]

    Pingback by A little perspective on the bees « Now or never — May 30, 2007 #

  8. Thanks so much for a very informative post. I have been vaguely worried about the bees lately, but you put it in perspective. I will stop frantically avoiding the subject now 😉

    I did read an article claiming that organic hives aren’t having the same problems — any thoughts on that?

    Comment by Yogamum — May 30, 2007 #

  9. This is a wonderful post. Thank you (as usual).

    Yogamum – there have been some tales of organic bees being safe, but it seems to be debated even there. In a recent article in the Edmonton Journal, one organic keeper said he’s seeing some bee losses, and he thinks it’s just a cycle of decline. That said, the article also states that authorities are investigating the differences between hive management styles and CCD. So I think it’s much too soon to conclusively say, and other online feeds seem to back that up. In other research online, it appears that a lot of that came from an e-mail list of organic beekeepers, and it would be hard to trace that fully, or understand the extent of the conversation.

    That said, I feel organic is definitely safer than non-, so even if it’s not a bee issue, it’s a good idea :).

    Comment by Alexis E — May 31, 2007 #

  10. Grow organic, you’ll have lots of bees and other pollinators. And critters in your soil, to boot.

    I’ve gotten soil from other neighbors when they had a new patio installed – the topsoil they took out was sterile – no critters in it. My soil is always full of critters.

    Also, make sure you get female as well as male plants in your garden – the female plants will help absorb extra pollen in the air, and cut down on allergies.

    Comment by donna — May 31, 2007 #

  11. As usual, Barbara, an insightful article. I shall be directing everyone who expresses concern about bees to it. I have had a few such concerns voiced in my presence, but had no ready source to refute the near hysteria that the media promotes.

    Comment by Dan Jenkins — June 1, 2007 #

  12. […] The bees are dying. They are dying of a strange disorder that causes the worker bees of a previously thriving honeybee hive to just fly away and … so they cannot find their way home. Instead, they buzz around lost until they just fall down dead and exhausted … was in 1994, long after the esteemed scientist was dead, and source: Concerning Bees: The Fear Factor, Tigers & Strawberries […]

    Pingback by Concerning Bees: The Fear Factor — MMORPG Games — June 1, 2007 #

  13. What a wonderful post Barbara! Thank you so much for the thought you put into it, it is very reassuring and also helps me feel more like doing my part.

    Comment by Erika — June 2, 2007 #

  14. Your post, as always, touches a deep chord. It kinders sensitivity and I have immediately forwarded it to young people around me. You seem to have a very research oriented approach which makes it a very thorough read. Thanks for the great article.

    Comment by Pritya — June 4, 2007 #

  15. Surprisingly, wild (feral, really) hives and Small Cell Organic beekeepers do not seem to be experiencing much in the way of CCD. The commercial honey bee is reared on a mechanically created foundation of wax and/or plastic. The size of the cells is controlled by the machine than imprints the wax, and the larvae grow to fill the cells. This has been going on for many decades, and commercial bees are now quite a bit larger than their feral cousins. It takes a generation or two for them to revert to small cell making when they swarm and go feral.
    Feral bees make cells that are a millimeter or two smaller and appear have fewer parasite problems because they mature faster, and the cells get sealed off more quickly to pupate or hold honey. This seems to make tham much more resistant to the mites that have been plaguing the beekeeping world for the last decade.
    The Organic Beekeeping list on Yahoo can give more information about small cell hives, foundation, and their apparent advantages.
    It really is interesting stuff.

    That said, we really do need to encourage our native pollinators with mason bee blocks and mixed habitat. Honeybees aren’t even native to the US, and we are so very dangerously dependent on them for our fruit and veg.

    Comment by Maven — June 6, 2007 #

  16. Hi Barbara,
    You might be interested in this YouTube video of Honey Bee expert Dennis van Engelsdorp, speaking about bees and CCD at the recent 2007 Taste3 Conference in Napa, CA:

    Comment by Elise — July 16, 2007 #

  17. Thank you so much, Elise–I will watch it sometime when Kat is not sleeping on my lap, nor is trying to climb up and fall down on her head.

    Thanks for thinking of me and my new fascination with bees. (I bought a bee-keeping magazine the other day–Zak and Morganna say it is only a matter of time before I have bees. And if they are allowed in urban backyards here in Athens, a pair of ducks….sometimes I miss the country.)

    Comment by Barbara — July 18, 2007 #

  18. Does the varroa mite mentioned in this article about the disappearing bees, have as much to do with their disappearance as CCD?

    Comment by richard — May 7, 2008 #

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