So what's killing our bees?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

By Grant F.C. Gillard

Not a week goes by that someone doesn't ask me two questions. The first question is, "How are your bees?" The second question is, "Have they found out what's killing them?"

The recent breaks in our winter weather provided me the opportunity to check my beehives. All indications give me a good feeling, that as spring approaches, our local bees are in good shape. As for the second question, we still don't know, and, unfortunately, we're no closer to finding a definitive answer.

Reports of massive deaths of honeybees filled the news media last year, a syndrome given the name Colony Collapse Disorder. The reports were alarming for two main reasons.

The first reason is that roughly one-third of our diet is dependent upon insect pollination. With a $15 billion agricultural industry, you can thank the honeybee for $5 billion of that production. The deaths of honeybee colonies have a tremendous impact on our ability to produce food, not to mention the economic impact. Bear in mind, we won't starve to death as several plant species are either self-pollinating or wind-pollinated, but some fruit and vegetables would cease to exist if all the honeybees were to die.

The second reason for alarm is that we don't know the cause, and, in reality, we're no closer to finding out why bees are dying. With any potential disaster, knowledge of the cause helps us to find solutions. But in this case, the cause remains elusive. We're still looking for the smoking gun.

I had opportunity to travel to a national conference and listen to leading scientists and researchers share their findings, and the consistent response was, "We're still not sure." Research continues, and it's possible we may never definitively know. The good news is that not all bees have died, but even the surviving bees offer no substantial clues.

The consensus, however, is that honeybee deaths are not the cause of any one problem, but rather the lethal interaction of several, normally benign, factors. Taken alone, the individual factors are manageable and the honeybees survive. Yet when these factors come together, they align and react in unpredictable ways, and their effect is magnified and the consequences devastating.

Many of the scientists present agreed our bee deaths are a result of the cumulative challenges that include parasitic mites and the viruses they carry, along with nutritional deficits from large-scale monoculture (nothing but one crop to pollinate), the increasing use of pesticides, diseases with growing resistance to normal treatments, environmental pollution, weather abnormalities including the drought cycle, and the nebulous problem of stress.

While the losses for some beekeepers have been tragic and personal, we reminded ourselves that honeybees are resilient, and beekeepers are resilient as well. This is not the end of civilization as we know it. It's a time to adjust and adapt, assess what and how we're doing, then move forward the best we can.

The Rev. Grant F.C. Gillard of Jackson is a Presbyterian minister who keeps beehives as a hobby.

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