Permaculturing in Portugal

One family's attempts to live in a more planet-friendly way

Bees on their knees

This is mostly a post from my other blog, made over two years ago now, which I got reminded of yesterday while upgrading the blog to WordPress software (about time! … a case of the cobbler’s bairns …). Since the publicity being given to the disappearing bees doesn’t appear to have moved on much at all from how it was then, I think it’s worthwhile repeating the post, with some updates, here.

Honeybee on wax flower

More and more publicity is being given to the alarming collapse in bee populations in the US and Europe, eg. this article from The Independent entitled Are mobile phones wiping out our bees?

“It seems like the plot of a particularly far-fetched horror film. But some scientists suggest that our love of the mobile phone could cause massive food shortages, as the world’s harvests fail.

“They are putting forward the theory that radiation given off by mobile phones and other hi-tech gadgets is a possible answer to one of the more bizarre mysteries ever to happen in the natural world – the abrupt disappearance of the bees that pollinate crops. Late last week, some bee-keepers claimed that the phenomenon – which started in the US, then spread to continental Europe – was beginning to hit Britain as well.

“The theory is that radiation from mobile phones interferes with bees’ navigation systems, preventing the famously homeloving species from finding their way back to their hives. Improbable as it may seem, there is now evidence to back this up.

“Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) occurs when a hive’s inhabitants suddenly disappear, leaving only queens, eggs and a few immature workers, like so many apian Mary Celestes. The vanished bees are never found, but thought to die singly far from home. The parasites, wildlife and other bees that normally raid the honey and pollen left behind when a colony dies, refuse to go anywhere near the abandoned hives.

“The alarm was first sounded last autumn, but has now hit half of all American states. The West Coast is thought to have lost 60 per cent of its commercial bee population, with 70 per cent missing on the East Coast.”

The article goes on to say:

“The implications of the spread are alarming. Most of the world’s crops depend on pollination by bees. Albert Einstein once said that if the bees disappeared, “man would have only four years of life left”.

“No one knows why it is happening. Theories involving mites, pesticides, global warming and GM crops have been proposed, but all have drawbacks.”

However, looking into more detailed, balanced and less sensationalist commentaries on the subject, such as the article on Colony Collapse Disorder in Wikipedia and the work of the Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group, based primarily at Penn State University, a different picture begins to emerge.

Firstly, although wild and feral populations have been under stress for many years from habitat destruction, urbanisation, pesticide misuse, crop pattern changes and probably cellphone use as well, the phenomenon appears to be limited to ‘farmed’ bees — colonies kept and managed as commercial enterprises, and in particular, those of large commercial migratory beekeepers, some of whom have lost 50-90% of their colonies. Large-scale non-migratory enterprises are affected to a lesser extent.

Large-scale migratory enterprises developed with the advent of modern hive construction, allowing colonies to be transported long distances and keepers to make a business from pollination services as well as, or instead of, honey production. The traditional small-scale self-employed beekeeper has been relegated to the status of little more than hobbyist.

Migratory beekeepers

US migratory beekeepers loading tractor-trailer load of bees for transport from South Carolina to Maine to pollinate blueberries.

According to Wikipedia:

“Honey bees are not native to the Americas, therefore their necessity as pollinators in the US is limited to strictly agricultural uses. They are responsible for pollination of approximately one third of the United States’ crop species, including such species as: almonds, peaches, soybeans, apples, pears, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, and strawberries; many but not all of these plants can be (and often are) pollinated by other insects, including other kinds of bees, in the US, but typically not on a commercial scale. While some farmers of a few kinds of native crops do bring in honey bees to help pollinate, none specifically need them, and when honey bees are absent from a region, the native pollinators quickly reclaim the niche, typically being better adapted to serve those plants (assuming that the plants normally occur in that specific area).”

In other words, the critical crops affected are non-indigenous, artificially grown and maintained by man-made means, and are not part of the natural ecosystem of the area. So quoting Einstein and invoking the spectre of a worldwide disaster seems a little premature. (The dependence of the US agrarian economy on managed pollination is a direct result of pursuing large-scale monoculture which is naturally prone to catastrophic failure due to its inflexibility and lack of diversity.)

Secondly, the disappearing bees have been logged for a good 35 years, progressively increasing over time such that between 1971 and 2006 it’s estimated that 50% of the US population of the Western honey bee (Apis mellifera) has disappeared. In late 2006 and early 2007, the rate of losses reached new heights and the term ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’ was coined to describe this more catastrophic turn of events.

Before the CCD label was attached to the phenomenon, it was variously known as autumn collapse, May disease, spring dwindle, disappearing disease, and fall dwindle disease, reflecting the fact that most occurrences were at the change in seasons. The search for the cause has concentrated primarily on pathogens, pesticides, mites, genetically modified (GM) crops and cellular phone signal proliferation which have all been proposed as causative agents.

A preliminary survey by the Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group revealed that a period of “extraordinary stress” affected the colonies in question prior to the die-off. To date, this is the only factor that all of the reported cases of CCD have in common. Most often, the stress involved poor nutrition and/or drought.

Some researchers have attributed the syndrome to the practice of feeding high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and protein supplements to augment winter stores. This was common to most beekeepers in Penn State’s survey. Most beekeepers affected by CCD report that they use antibiotics and miticides in their colonies, though the lack of uniformity as to which particular chemicals are used makes it seem unlikely that any single such chemical is involved. Others have identified the characteristics of immune disorders, similar to AIDS in humans. Specifically, according to researchers at Penn State: “The magnitude of detected infectious agents in the adult bees suggests some type of immunosuppression.”

The picture rapidly emerging from all this is of yet another species falling victim to large-scale commercially-driven farming methods. Limited genetic diversity combined with the cumulative effects of high doses of artificial feedstuffs (one of the early symptoms of impending CCD is that the colony is reluctant to consume provided feed, such as sugar syrup and protein supplement), repeated antibiotic and pesticide treatments, unnatural environments and lifestyle (migratory keepers regularly transport their hives considerable distances, often across different climate zones which, for a creature with sophisticated navigation relying on precise environmental orientation, can only be enormously stressful and disturbing), all contributing to severely degraded immune systems in chronically-stressed insects. This leads to massive numbers of fatalities in the adult worker population in times of extra stress, and as immune deficiency increases, so the stress threshold becomes progressively lower, hence die-offs no longer occur just at change of seasons or periods of drought and low food supply. Note that it’s the adult worker bees that are affected – the bees most likely to suffer from repeated dislocation.

Toxic chemical load is among the mechanisms which are more realistically proposed as causes of AIDS in humans.

When is the human race going to learn that we can’t go on employing short-sighted unidimensional linear logic in relation to living systems? It results in such crazy practices as increasing the toxic chemical load (antibiotics and miticides) in response to illness which is inevitably produced by our unnatural, inhumane and artificial chemical-based husbandry methods. The fact that commercial bee populations are disappearing in such large numbers really isn’t at all surprising. The only thing to be wondered at is the resilience of the species in surviving for so long in the face of such an onslaught.

And the final question that has to be asked is are the bees even dying? The latest results from the Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group reports

“Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is characterized by the complete absence of bees in dead colonies or in apiaries. This survey was not able to differentiate between verifiable cases of CCD and colonies lost as the result of other causes that share the “absence of dead bees” as a symptom. The 26% of operations that reported some of their colonies died without dead bees lost 32% of their colonies, while beekeepers that did not lose any bees with symptoms of CCD lost a total of 26% of their colonies.”

If “colonies died without dead bees” then can the colonies be reliably said to have died? Maybe the bees just got thoroughly fed up with being stressed to the max by our husbandry techniques and took themselves off to try and recover in what’s left of the wild?

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  1. Sarah June 9, 2009

    Check out
    Fascinating stuff, rick really in to this and the book The Shamanic Way of the Bee: Ancient Wisdom and Healing Practices of the Bee Masters (Paperback)
    by Simon Buxton (Author)

    We have bees now and despite being told to do things the “portuguese way” he is doing his way, has kept bees before and they seem to be very happy……
    hope you are well?

  2. Quinta do Vale June 9, 2009

    Great site! Thanks. Synchronicity there as I was just at a weekend on using sound in healing. Vibrational healing has got to be the way to go — homeopathy, flower essences, craniosacral therapy, Reiki and other energy work, colour therapy, sonic entrainment, etc — brilliant stuff.

    We’re good thanks. Back in Benfeita next Wednesday, so see you soon! Really looking forward to seeing your bees now.

  3. Sarah June 12, 2009

    Hey, glad you are coming back soon, donald and cath are here and river and emma and another couple, richard and katrin…..jolly times, what with cafe open and river beach…..
    On another note, i was given a whole freshly sheared sheeps wool today and have spent ages looking into washing and making felt and then got into thinking about using as a mulch and have found out that you can make compost with sheeps wool and bracken…yeah….have loads of that, but can’t find out how to do it….do you think i should just cut up fleece and bracken and leave in heap somewhere?

  4. Quinta do Vale June 12, 2009

    Can’t wait! Especially to catch up with Donald who I haven’t seen for 13 years! Cool River and Emma are back too.

    Never heard of the sheeps wool/bracken compost mix. Sounds interesting. I googled and found a BBC news item on it which goes into a bit of detail. Simon Bland is apparently the guy who devised the mixture. From looking at his site it looks like the bracken/wool mix is composted with farmyard manure. I’d think it could be a bit hard to get the composting process going without that crucial ingredient. But I’m thinking what a great mixture to use as the base organic material “sponge” in your compost bin if you’re following Joe Jenkins’ method for composting human manure.

  5. Paula June 14, 2009

    Hi There!
    Came across your site and thought I’d say hello! I’m also home educating my son, well, unschooling, that is, and have recently decided to grow my own veg. Might come visit more often ;-)

  6. Quinta do Vale June 14, 2009

    Bem-vindo Paula!
    Thanks for the link to your site too. It’s a great resource.

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