The mysterious 4-year-old crisis of disappearing honeybees is deepening. A quick federal survey indicates a heavy bee die-off this winter of 2010, while a new study shows honeybees’ pollen and hives laden with pesticides. Scientists are concerned because of the vital role bees play in our food supply. About one-third of the human diet is from plants that require pollination from honeybees, which means everything from apples to zucchini. One-third of those surveyed had trouble finding enough hives to pollinate California’s blossoming nut trees, which grows the bulk of the world’s almonds.
It is thought that honeybees annually pollinate
more than $14 billion worth of seeds and
crops in US, mostly fruits, vegetables and nuts.
On their travels, bees transfer pollen from plant to plant, flower to flower, fertilizing the blossoms and allowing them to set fruit. This ancient partnership of pollinator and plant is essential to life as we know it. One-third of the food we eat comes from crops that need animal pollinators, a role often filled by bees but sometimes by butterflies, beetles, birds, or bats.
The disappearing bees are a catastrophe and will have a direct impact on our collective stomachs. In the last few years beekeepers have been getting the shock of their lives seeing hundreds of millions of their bees literally disappearing. Beekeepers go out to open their hives and find them empty. Bees are flying off in search of pollen and nectar and simply not returning to their homes, they vanish without a trace. Researchers say the bees are dying in the fields, perhaps becoming exhausted or simply disoriented and eventually falling victim to the cold. Researchers have labeled this affliction “colony collapse disorder.”
Farmers across North America have been blitzing their
fields with millions of tons of herbicides and pesticides
for decades. And since the mid to late 1990′s massive
numbers of genetically engineered crops have been planted.
– Greg Ciola
Greg Ciola wrote in his book GMOs, Beware of the Coming Food Apocalypse, “In one German study done at the University of Jena they tested bees on a field of genetically engineered rapeseed (canola). The bees were released onto the crop and then took the pollen back to their hive and fed it to young bees. When scientists analyzed the bacteria in the gut of the young bees they discovered that it contained the same gene traits as those of the modified crops. This study is very alarming because bees are one of the most important insects to mankind. From bees we get honey, pollen, royal jelly, propolis, and bees wax. Irrespective of GM crops, there is already great concern in America over the health of the honeybee. American apiaries have been dealing with many other problems over the last few years. They can’t be too pleased to know that altered genes from rapeseed can now be transferred to the bee. Just think how many honeybees in America are now pollinating on genetically modified rapeseed! Better yet, how many honeybees are now pollinating on all genetically modified crops? When bees start dying off, it’s only a matter of time before man does too!”
Safe pastures where bees can forage without being
poisoned by pesticides are becoming increasingly rare.
In the UK, there have been “a few but significant examples” of what experts call the “Marie Celeste phenomenon” – colonies abandoning hives altogether leaving no evidence of what caused their disappearance. Greece, Italy, Poland, Portugal, and Spain have also had their bouts with “colony collapse disorder.”
Honey bee. (Image Credit: Scott Bauer, USDA/ARS
(Agricultural Research Service))
More than 90 crops in North America rely on honeybees to transport
pollen from flower to flower, effecting fertilization and allowing
production of fruit and seed. The amazing versatility of the species
is worth an estimated $14 billion a year to the United States economy.
Honey bees are responsible for approximately one third of the United States crop pollination including almonds, peaches, soybeans, apples, pears, pumpkins, cucumbers, cherries, raspberries, blackberries and strawberries. Investigators are exploring a range of theories, including viruses, a fungus and poor bee nutrition. They are also studying a group of pesticides that were banned in some European countries to see if these are somehow affecting the bees’ innate ability to find their way back home. It has been noted that to give bees energy while they are pollinating, beekeepers now feed them protein supplements and a liquid mix of sucrose and corn syrup.
There are no tell-tale bee corpses inside colonies or out in front
of hives, where bees typically deposit their dead nest mates.
Experts are speculating that it may be the consequence of a new infection, or of several diseases simultaneously, leading to a fatally compromised immune system. It is also possible that severe stress brought on by crowding, inadequate nutrition or perhaps the combined effects of prophylactic antibiotics and miticides sprayed by beekeepers to ward off infections. Another particularly sad possibility is that accidental exposure to a new pesticide may cause non-lethal behavioral changes that interfere with the ability of honeybees to orient and navigate; brain-damaged foraging bees may simply get lost on their way home and starve to death away from the hive.
Honeybees contribute to our food chain in more
ways than any other animal species. They are vital to alfalfa
and clover, which is processed into hay to feed beef and dairy cattle.
Mercury Pollution and Bees
Scientists have already studied mercury levels in the head, abdomen and thorax of bees (Apis mellifera) from 20 bee populations coming from industrially contaminated areas with a dominant load of mercury (10 populations) as well as from uncontaminated areas. The following mercury levels were found in bees from the contaminated area: heads 0.029-0.385 mg/kg, thorax 0.028-0.595 mg/kg and abdomen 0.083-2.255 mg/kg. Mercury levels in samples from uncontaminated areas ranged from 0.004 to 0.024 mg/kg in the heads, from 0.004 to 0.008 mg/kg in the thorax and from 0.008 to 0.020 mg/kg in the abdomen. In honey samples from the contaminated and uncontaminated areas mercury levels ranged from 0.050 to 0.212 mg/kg and from 0.001 to 0.003 mg/kg, respectively. Researchers have also demonstrated heavy metal accumulation in honey suggesting that honey may be useful for assessing the presence of environmental contaminants.
Because of their experimental traceability, recently sequenced genome and well-understood biology, honey bees are an ideal model system for integrating molecular, genetic, physiological and socio-biological perspectives to advance our understanding of converging environmental stresses. Honey bees have the highest rates of flight muscle metabolism and power output ever recorded in the animal kingdom. Researchers believe that it is likely that changes in muscle gene expression, biochemistry, metabolism and functional capacity may be driven primarily by behavior as opposed to age, as is the case for changes in honey bee brains. Even at low levels of exposure, mercury can permanently damage the brain and nervous system and cause behavioral changes in people. Mercury is a harsh neurological poison that affects neurological tissues throughout the animal kingdom and it is very possible that it is affecting the sensitive brains of honey bees.
When gilial progenitor stem cells in the brain were exposed
to 5 to 6 parts per billion (ppb) of mercury, these cells stop
dividing and simply shut down! These cells are absolutely
crucial in building the brain in infancy and beyond.
Professor Mark Noble
University of Rochester NY
Power plants are the largest unregulated source of mercury emissions, releasing 48 tons of mercury into the air annually in the United States alone. Oil, fertilizers, pesticides and the countless other chemicals, byproducts and debris that enter our water, air and land continually afflict species worldwide and produce damaging, long-lasting effects. Mercury is however one of the most prevalent and powerful poisons, and it manages to infiltrate everything.
Mercury pollution is making its way into nearly
every habitat in the U.S., exposing countless species
of wildlife to potentially harmful levels of this neurological toxin.
“From songbirds to alligators, turtles to bats, eagles to otters, mercury is accumulating in nearly every corner of the food chain,” says Catherine Bowes, Northeast Program Manager for the National Wildlife Federation and principal author of a report on mercury pollution. “This report paints a compelling picture of mercury contamination in the U.S., and many more species are at risk than we previously thought. Fish, long thought to be the key species affected by mercury, are just the tip of the iceberg.”
Human scientists and the media that reports on scientific progress and discoveries have no realization that there are many causes inflicting harm on the biosphere simultaneously. The theory that cell phone radiation seriously interferes with bees’ ability to navigate through the air is just an example as would be increased levels of radiation pollution (uranium oxide) from the recent use of depleted uranium weapons on distant battle fields. Human activity is poisoning the bees as we poison ourselves. Freud would probably feel vindicated with his death principle.
Albert Einstein was thought to have said, “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live.” There is doubt that he actually said that, and certainly it is an exaggeration but there’s a grain of truth to the apocryphal quote, and the apocalyptic overtones aren’t far off the mark.
We really do not recognize the magnitude of what is threatening biological existence; certainly no one in the public sphere is talking about the nightmare of the rising tide of mercury toxicity. And no one is imagining dismantling every cell tower and taking away every cell phone.
Scientists have been observing how one species after another is disappearing from our planet but never before has one with such a direct bearing on food production been threatened. Extinction of a species doesn’t just affect the group that disappears – it tends to alter more. What is killing one species after another on our world is threatening us whether we realize it or not.
 Toporcak J, Legath J, Kul’kova J. Univerzita veterinarskeho lekarstva, Kosice.
 Environ Monit Assess. 2005 Oct;109(1-3):181-7. Determination of heavy metals in honey in Kahramanmaras City, Turkey.Erbilir F, Erdogrul O. Department of Food Engineering, Faculty of Agriculture, University of Kahramanmaras Sutcu Imam, Kahramanmaras, Turkey.
 J Exp Biol. 2005 Nov;208(Pt 22):4193-8. Muscle biochemistry and the ontogeny of flight capacity during behavioral development in the honey bee, Apis mellifera.Roberts SP, Elekonich MM. Department of Biological Sciences, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, NV 89154-4004, USA.