As you may know, honeybee colonies are dying out in large numbers. In the United States alone, more than 25 percent of the honeybee population has disappeared since 1990. Scientists call this phenomenon “Colony Collapse Disorder.” And its impact reaches farther than you might imagine. Actually, we can learn a lot about our own health from the sad plight of the honeybee.
Some scientists try to link the demise of the honeybee in recent decades to one single cause. But as I always say, life is rarely that simple. Many factors contribute to Colony Collapse Disorder.
Bees are amazing insects. They have been around for a good 40 million years. They have complex organization and impressive communication abilities. And of course, they make honey, which is a good source of carbohydrate and energy.
They also play a critical role in pollinating flowers and flowering plants. In fact, they help produce many of our most nutritious foods, including:
As you can see, bees are critical to our food supply. In fact, bees help about 30 percent of the crops grown worldwide. But Colony Collapse Disorder is already harming this process.
In the U.S. now, most managed honeybee colonies are moved around according to the seasons to pollinate the crops. For example, every year California almond growers must import honeybees from other states to pollinate their crops. They use about half of all the honeybees in the United States for this effort.
In 2002, I met a wonderful beekeeper couple from Idaho. More than once, I witnessed my beekeeper friends pack up their whole “kit and caboodle” and transport their colonies from Idaho to Nebraska to participate in the pollination season.
But this constant moving around also disrupts the honeybee colonies. (That’s one reason why it’s important to buy local honey. In a sense, this practice helps keep bees “employed” at home. Instead of traipsing across the country to help the almond growers, for example.)
There are a few more factors that seem to contribute to Colony Collapse Disorder…
First, all bees commonly suffer from bacterial, fungal and viral infections.
Wild honeybees, in particular, have a unique set of challenges. They suffer from loss of habitat. They also suffer from changing climates and early springs. (When flowers and flowering plants bloom earlier than normal in the spring, the bees miss their window to pollinate.)
Like humans, bees need nutritional variety. They thrive by gathering the pollen and nectar from a variety of crops. But they become nutritionally deficient when they come across vast acres of industrial farmlands that grow just one single crop.
And, of course, wild honeybees suffer greatly from pesticides. Unfortunately, these dangerous toxins are everywhere today–on agricultural fields, golf courses, and lawns. Some beekeepers even spray pesticides directly into their managed beehives to control insect mites. Astoundingly, a typical bee colony today contains toxic residues from more than 120 pesticides.
But government agencies like the EPA have a “one-at-a-time” mentality. They look at individual levels of each individual pesticide. If each pesticide falls below the official “toxic” level, you’re fine. But together, these individual toxins–120 of them in the case of today’s colonies–form a “toxic soup” that poisons the bees’ immune system.
(The government’s misguided mentality about pesticides reminds me of the famous solo aria in the opera The Barber of Seville. Figaro cries, <<Una la volta, una la volta …per charita>>. This translates in English to, “One at a time, one a time…for pity’s sake!”)
In my former forensic medical practice, I investigated deaths linked to the accumulation of pesticides in the body. The victims’ families could try bringing lawsuits against the makers of the pesticides. But the judicial branch of the government uses this same, “one-at-a-time” excuse for human pesticide exposure. It doesn’t appear to accept or acknowledge that individual pesticides don’t have to reach “toxic” levels to cause harm. But if enough of these chemicals come together, they can be just as harmful–or more so–even at supposedly “non-toxic” individual doses.
Government agencies and courts demand scientific evidence that each and every individual pesticide causes damage. But that’s just not the way exposure occurs to bees…or to humans.
Unfortunately, the honeybees can’t avoid pesticide exposure as easily as you can. And they can’t do anything about the other factors I mentioned earlier either. So, like a vicious cycle, the factors compound. And they overcome the bees’ natural ability to adapt. As a result, we see widespread colony collapses
You can help the honeybee situation by planting a garden in your backyard. Make sure to include lots of the fruits and vegetables I listed earlier. Also, bees like daisy-shaped flowers, including asters and sunflowers. They also like tall plants like hollyhocks, larkspur and foxgloves.
Also, as I mentioned earlier, you can keep the bees employed at home by buying local honey. Local honey complies with all food standard requirements. So it’s safe to eat. Plus, you get all the pollen, vitamins, minerals, and amino acids that come from local plants. In fact, eating local honey made with pollen from local plants can help your seasonal allergies. Your body slowly builds up a tolerance to the local pollen in small doses. And it’s a whole lot more enjoyable than getting allergy shots.
1. “Pollinator Conservation,” Renewable Resources Journal, Winter 1999-2000
2. “Our Bees, Ourselves: Bees and Colony Collapse,” New York Times (www.nytimes.com) 7/15/2014