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THE NEW SILENT SPRING

America is one bad winter away from a food disaster, thanks to dying bees

Forget the plight of the polar bear for a moment and consider the coming collapse of the $30 billion honey bee economy in the US.

Since 2006 honey bees responsible for pollinating more than 100 crops—from apples to zucchini—have been dying by the tens of millions. As a new report from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) details, scientists are still struggling to pinpoint the cause of so-called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and time is running out.

“Currently, the survivorship of honey bee colonies is too low for us to be confident in our ability to meet the pollination demands of U.S. agricultural crops,” the report states.

Some signs of beemageddon: CCD has wiped out some 10 million bee hives worth $2 billion over the past six years. The death rate for colonies has hit 30% annually in recent years and there are now about 2.5 million honey bee colonies in the US, down from 6 million in 1947 and 3 million in 1990. That downward spiral leaves “virtually no cushion of bees for pollination,” the report’s authors write.

If that sounds scary, it is. Take almonds. California harvests more than 80% of the world’s almonds. But you can’t grow the nut without honey bees and it takes 60% of the US’s remaining colonies just to pollinate that one $4 billion cash crop.

If the death toll continues at the present rate, that means there will soon be barely enough bees to pollinate almonds, let alone avocadoes, blueberries, pears or plums. “We are one poor weather event or high winter bee loss away from a pollination disaster,” USDA scientist Jeff Pettis said in the report.

In recent years, agricultural pesticides have become a leading suspect in bee deaths. Attention has focused on a class of chemicals called neonicotinoids. Last month the European Commission imposed a two-year ban on neonicotinoids as global concern grows over the bee population crash, which has affected several European countries too.

But scientists increasingly believe several interacting factors—from disease-carrying parasites to poor nutrition to pesticides—are responsible for the mass die-off. For instance, the report says, studies have shown that exposure to even non-fatal levels of neonicotinoids may make bees more susceptible to disease.

And as agriculture becomes ever more industrial and natural habitats that formerly bordered farmland are destroyed, bees are being starved of the food they need to help produce food for humans. “Undernourished or malnourished bees appear to be more susceptible to pathogens, parasites, and other stressors, including toxins,” said the report.

So how to save the bees? One answer: Breed better bees. The report recommends stepping up efforts to identify genetic traits in particular bees that make them resistance to suspected causes of CCD. Some honey bees, it turns out, take “suicidal risks” when infected with disease to prevent spreading the contagion to the colony.

The report also suggests importing Russian honey bees and other “Old World” bees to diversify bee breeding stock and build up CCD resistance.  Scientists already have begun to stockpile bee semen and germplasm in case the worst comes to pass.

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