THE LAST CANARY IN THE COAL MINE: SMALL, YELLOW, AND OMINOUSLY SILENT
Over the past fifty years, anomalies have occurred within Earth’s atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere. Some of these have caught the attention of scientists and environmentalists only, while others have produced media frenzies. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring identified the risks of bioaccumulation to egg-laying animals, especially raptors (1962); habitat destruction led to the near extinction of the snail darter (1977) and the Northern Spotted Owl (1980s); the fungal threat to the existence of the Cavendish banana (1992) brought attention to the Gros Michel banana crisis of the 1950s, both related to monocultural farming practices; a marked increase in malformed amphibians highlighted the issue of water pollution (1995); the decline of Monarch butterfly populations was linked to the rise of genetically modified crops (1999); and the global warming-induced extinction of polar bears, projected to occur within the next hundred years (2003), are all examples of canary-in-a-coal-mine scenarios. In each of these cases, the threat was rapidly identified, although systemic changes to neutralize them have not yet been enacted. The most recent threat to the environmental systems of the Earth, including those which support humanity, has claimed millions of lives in the last six months, yet its cause has not been identified. It is Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), and its primary victim is the Western honeybee.
Some scientists believe that bees and flowers evolved together (Stein Carter). An example of this coevolution is the snapdragon, a flower that will only open to reveal its nectar and pollen if a bee of the appropriate size and weight lands on its platform (Stein Carter). Of thousands of bee species, the Western honeybee is the one most commonly used for pollination. This bee has sacs on its legs specifically for storing pollen, which make it capable of collecting pollen from more flowers on each flight. They also carry a slight electromagnetic charge which holds pollen to their bodies. Unlike other bee species, Western honeybee hives remain viable over the winter. Ten to fifteen thousand bees may survive to help the hive reach its summer population of up to eighty thousand insects. Originally from Europe, Western honeybees were exported to Egypt thousands of years ago; hives on rafts cruised the river to pollinate the Nile Delta (“Honey-Egypt”). Early Greeks and Romans also kept bees. Western honeybees were brought to North America about four hundred years ago.
In the last sixty years, the honeybee has faced many new challenges. Imported bee pests, such as the varroa and tracheal mites, can devastate a colony. The rise of Asian apiaries, which produce honey less expensively, means fewer European and American beekeepers; Western beekeepers now make more money renting hives for pollination than they make from honey production. However, moving hives from crop to crop puts stress on the bees. Stressed bees are more susceptible to infections, especially the dysentery-producing nosema disease. Worker bees carry pesticides in the pollen to the colony, which can poison the brood and weaken adult bee immune systems. All of these threats are worrisome, but manageable.
Walter Haefeker, a member of the German Beekeepers Association, has been worried about the Western honeybee for many years. In a 2005 article, he quoted Albert Einstein: “If the bee disappeared off the face of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man” (Latsch). This winter, the bees started disappearing. Apiarists in the US and Germany have reported mysteriously empty hives. The Colony Collapse Disorder Working Group (CCDWG) describes a CCD hive as having capped brood (pupa) but a complete absence of adult bees or bee bodies, either in or near the hive (“Fall Dwindle Disease”). Also, hive pests or other bees, which would normally pillage an abandoned hive immediately, do not raid CCD hives for days or weeks. The CCDWG took samples from hives suspected of undergoing collapse and found multiple infections within each bee, including mites, fungus, and nosema disease. This indicates a failed immune system, leading some researchers to think of CCD as “bee AIDS” (Leventhal). Germany reportedly lost about twenty-five percent of its total bee population, and up to eighty percent in some regions (Latsch). The American Beekeeping Federation heard from apiarists across the country, including one who lost eleven thousand of thirteen thousand colonies. Even at winter estimates of ten thousand bees per colony, that’s over a hundred million bees! Some American apiarists, with migratory and non-migratory hives, claimed losses of ninety percent (CCD Working Group “CCD FAQ”).
Colony Collapse Disorder of the Western honeybee is the best canary we could have, for three main reasons. First, its destructive power is working at a much faster rate than previous environmental threats, thus requiring immediate action. Bioaccumulation, global warming, and habitat destruction take time. When the varroa mite arrived in North America twenty years ago, it was viewed as a death sentence for Western honeybees. The mite spreads rapidly, but an infected hive can function for up to four years, giving scientists time to test theories and find workable, if temporary, solutions (Reid). The honeybee’s genome was sequenced last year, in the hope that it “may someday lead to a solution to the bees’ problematic population decline” (Hughes). The quote does not refer to CCD, but to the twenty-year-old threat of varroa mites. If Einstein’s timeline is correct, NGOs and governments do not have time to overcome their ingenuity gap and save the honeybee through traditional scientific methods. The bee won’t wait, so neither can we.
Second, this could be the object lesson which verifies the interconnectedness of Earth’s systems, thus emphasizing the importance of multi-directional environmental protocols. The general public seems unwilling to embrace all environmental issues at the same time. People who campaign for the eagle and the polar bear may not care about bananas or butterflies, but bioaccumulation, global warming, monoculture farming and genetically modified crops may be the deadly combination causing the disappearance of the Western honeybee. These are complex and interrelated systems which require a holistic approach if environmental threats to our existence are to be neutralized.
Third, CCD is directly and inversely correlated to life as we know it. Not only are bees part of the canon of Western civilization (think ‘land of milk and honey,’ ‘the birds and the bees,’ and ‘busy as a bee’), but they are wholly or partially responsible for the pollination of thirty percent of crops and ninety percent of wild plants (McManus). The value of the Western honeybee has increased as other natural pollinators have disappeared (Canadian Honey Council). Many crops are wholly pollinated by bees, including apples, cranberries, pears and pumpkins. In 2006, B.C.’s apple exports alone topped ten million dollars (Statistics Canada). B.C.’s cranberry sales totalled over thirty million dollars (Investment Agriculture). The Canadian Honey Council estimated that, in 2005, bees as pollinators were worth over $1 billion. However, as much as CCD threatens our local crops, it is worse in the United States where pollinated crops are a $15 billion a year industry (Latsch). At these prices, the causes of CCD are worth investigating and long term changes to facilitate the operation of Earth’s natural systems are worth implementing.
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