For the past few years the bees required to pollinate fruit and vegetables in the US have been dying en masse with reported losses last season of up to 50%. These losses are devastating for beekeepers who are struggling to keep up with demand and meet their contractual obligations. Farmers aren’t happy either as they are having to pay unusually high prices for the scarce resource and sometimes having to settle for poorer quality bees. Both industries have an obvious vested interest in resolving the issue, the problem is no one is entirely sure what’s causing it.
Earlier this year the European Commission opted to restrict the use of Neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides thought be be harmful to bees. Neonicotinoids are still in use in the US, however, where many beekeepers are not convinced that banning the pesticide alone will be enough to prevent Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). They point to a combination of factors including the prevalence of Varroa mites who carry viruses harmful to bees, inadequate nutrition, migratory beekeeping as well as the widespread use of a variety of fungicides and pesticides. Eric Mussen, a leading US apiculturist, thinks bees may even be acting as the proverbial canary in the coal mine: “The honey bee may be showing us that they just can’t hack the combined environmental stresses anymore. Maybe that means we [humans] soon won’t be able to hack it either.”
The honey bee is far too important to modern agriculture and food production to be allowed die off without a fight, however, and the battle to save it is being fought on many fronts. Many beekeepers are taking extra steps to ensure the health of their colonies by supplementing their diet and treating for the Varroa mite. Jim Beld, a beekeeper and broker who connects growers with commercial pollinators, says he has managed to avoid heavy losses by feeding his bees homemade pollen patties during winter that contain protein, corn syrup and cinnamon. He also makes sure to treat his hives for Varroa infestations using sugar shakes or alcohol washes.
Introducing a second queen into a hive is also an effective measure, albeit a labour-intensive one. Beekeepers who adopt these methods tend to be the most successful but positive results are not guaranteed. According to Joe Traynor, another respected bee broker, “a lot of my clients are scratching their heads because they are taking exactly the same steps as their neighbors and not getting the same results.”
Growers, particularly almond farmers who require around two-thirds of all commercial hives in the US to pollinate their crop, have an equally strong incentive to help keep bees alive and healthy. The almond industry has experienced dramatic growth in the past few years.
As demand for the nut increases, so too has the demand for bees, and pollination costs have soared as a result. A decade ago growers were paying $50 a hive, now they are having to pay up to $200 or more.
Richard Enns, an almond farmer in California, reported paying $100,000 this year on pollination services alone.
One simple measure many farmers have adopted to give the bee a break is to do any spraying of pesticides or fungicides early in the morning before the bees show up for work and then start up again late afternoon when the bees have returned to the hive. Farmers are also being encouraged to plant open areas with a mix of wild flowers and plants that are beneficial to bee health. Another option some almond farmers are looking at is to switch to varieties of self-pollinating almonds such as the aptly named “Independence Almond”, which, as its name suggests, can grow independently of bees. It’s too early to say how well these self-fertilising trees will do, but while they may turn out to be a cost-effective solution for almond farmers, they do not necessarily spell good news for bees.
Still, for the time being, most farmers and food producers are dependent on bees to stay in business. That is why bigger outfits like Paramount Farms, the largest almond producer in the world, has been pouring money into research. Paramount recently hired noted bee biologist Gordon Wardell to look into alternatives to the beleaguered honey bee. One bee that has been identified as a possible additional pollinator is the Blue Orchard, a wild bee that is native to North America and forages on a diversity of plants and flowers. So far the research suggests that using the Blue Orchard Bee as a supplement to the honey bee is an effective strategy. According to Wardell, a spirit of competition forms when the two varieties of bees are sent out to work a field together and their different pollination strategies appear to complement one another.
Major agricultural corporations are also investing in research to avert a honeybee die-off. The food giant Monsanto recently bought out the research firm, Beeologics, who developed a double stranded RNA that can be fed to adult honey bees to vaccinate them against certain harmful viruses. There is plenty of resistance in the farming world to this system as it requires genetically modifying a plant by splicing a gene into it to produce a blocking molecule that would target a specific pest. Some scientists applaud the development, however, as they believe it could lead to a reduction in the need for pesticides which might be good news overall for bees.
Whether or not gene splicing is the answer or if a completely new approach is needed that involves less interference with the natural order of things, what is certain is that the battle to save the honey bee and to ensure against any long-term disruption of the global food supply is not one that we can afford to lose.
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