by Matt Hutaff
May 1, 2007
The disappearance of bee
colonies around the world could ravage agriculture -
and it's all our fault.
Rumor has it Albert Einstein once declared humanity could
only outlive the bee by about four years.
His reasoning was simple:
"no more bees, no more pollination,
no more plants, no more animals, no more man."
Nothing like entomological doomsday
scenarios from a classical physicist, right?
Nonetheless, it looks like we're poised to find out if the godfather
of relativity is right. Bees are disappearing at an alarming rate,
particularly in the United States and Germany.
And while it's normal
for hive populations to fall during colder winter months, the recent
exodus is puzzling beekeepers and researchers around the world.
Not likely, but I'll tell you one thing
– whatever's driving the collapse of the bee population, it's
"During the last three months of
2006, we began to receive reports from commercial beekeepers of
an alarming number of honey bee colonies dying in the eastern
United States," says Maryann Frazier, an apiarist with
Penn State University.
"Since the beginning of the year,
beekeepers from all over the country have been reporting
unprecedented losses," including one gentleman who's lost 800 of
his 2,000 colonies in less than four months.
Those losses are atypical. The usual
causes of death, aside from climate, are varroa mites, hive beetles,
and wax moths, which infest hives weakened by sickness and
malnutrition. Annual casualties tend to hover in the 20th
percentile, and beekeepers work with entomologists to protect their
investments via antibiotics, miticides, and advanced pest
Not so today.
The current blight has spread across the
country rapidly, leaving abandoned hives full of uneaten food and
unhatched larvae. Natural predators brave enough to enter behave
erratically, "acting in a way you normally don’t expect them to
act," says beekeeper Julianne Wooten.
And whereas naturally
abandoned hives are infested by other insects within a short period
of time, hives affected by what is tentatively labeled colony
collapse disorder (CCD) are avoided.
California and Texas have been hit particularly hard by the sudden
disappearance of bees, but dozens of other states are reporting
major losses as well. And when you consider bees are big business as
well as a critical part of the food chain, that vanishing act is no
bees are essential for
pollinating over 90 varieties of vegetables and fruits,
including apples, avocados, blueberries, and cherries
pollination increases the yield
and quality of crops by approximately $15 billion annually
California's almond industry
alone contributes $2 billion to the local economy, and
depends on 1.4 million bees, which are brought in from all
over the United States.
Bees stimulate the food supply as well
as the economy.
So what's the cause of colony collapse?
Suspicions are pointed in several
different directions, including
cell phone transmissions and
agricultural pesticides, some of
which are known to be poisonous to bees. But if these two factors
are responsible, why are the deaths not a global phenomenon?
The bee collapse began in isolated
pockets before progressing rapidly around the nation.
If cell phones are to blame,
shouldn't the effect have been simultaneous, and witnessed
And if pesticides are strictly
to blame, shouldn't beekeepers near major farm systems be
able to track those pollutants and narrow the field of
Perhaps they have – and the
culprit is bigger than we imagine.
Several scientists have come forward with the startling claim that
genetically modified food – you know, that blessing from above that
would solve famine and put food in the belly of every
undernourished, Third World child – is destroying bees. How could
something so wondrous as pest-resistant corn kill millions
upon millions of bees?
Simple – by producing so much natural
pesticide that bees are either driven mad or away.
Most genetically-modified seeds have a transplanted segment of DNA
that creates a well-known bacterium, bacillus thuringiensis (Bt),
in its cells. Normally Bt is not a problem – it's a
naturally-occurring pesticide that's been used as a spray for years
by farmers looking to control crop damage from butterflies.
And it's effective at helping beekeepers
keep bees alive, too – Bt is sprayed under hive lids to keep
those pesky wax moths from attacking.
But "instead of the bacterial
solution being sprayed on the plant, where it is eaten by the
target insect, the genes that contain the insecticidal traits
are incorporated into the genome of the farm crop," writes
biologist and beekeeper John McDonald.
"As the transformed plant grows,
these Bt genes are replicated along with the plant genes so that
each cell contains its own poison pill that kills the target
"Canadian beekeepers have detected the disappearance of the wax
moth in untreated hives, apparently a result of worker bees
foraging in fields of transgenic canola plants. [And] the
planting of transgenic corn and soybean has increased
exponentially, according to statistics from farm states. Tens of
millions of acres of transgenic crops are allowing Bt genes to
move off crop fields."
McDonald's analysis stands up under
A former agronomist has commented that
the one trial of GM crops in the Netherlands quickly led to
colony collapse within 100 kilometers of the fields, and it's
reasonable to hypothesize nature's pollinators would bear an averse
reaction to plants with poison coursing through every stem.
"The amount of Bt in these plants is
enough to trigger allergies in some people, and irritate the
skin and eyes of farmers who handle the crops," writes
"In India, when sheep were used to
clear a field of leftover Bt cotton, several sheep died after
If it can kill a sheep, it can certainly
kill a bee.
What can be done? Precious little if gene-modified plants are the
genesis of colony collapse.
"There is no way to keep genetically
modified genes from escaping into the wild," says Mike Rivero.
"Wild varieties of corn in Mexico have been found to contain
artificial genes carried by the wind and bees. Indeed it is
probable that the gene that makes the plant cells manufacture a
pesticide has already escaped, which means this problem will
"This is far more dangerous than a toxic spill, which confines
itself to the original spill and the downwind/downstream plumes.
A mistake in a gene, once allowed into the wild, can spread
across the entire planet."
Genetically-modified food is produced by
companies such as Monsanto (how many of its scientists do you
think drive a hybrid?). Despite a number of tests, the food created
by these gene-spliced crops are considered a failure.
It consistently makes animals ill,
increases liver toxicity, and damages kidneys.
In our dash to trademark the very
building blocks of our food supply, companies experimenting with
"upgrading" crops may have irreparably damaged one of nature's most
important contributors. Instead of approaching famine from a
balanced perspective, corporations have patented the right to
If Einstein's lesser-known theory is right, they have
unwittingly become Shiva, the destroyer of worlds. Wait - that was Oppenheimer. I need to stop quoting dead
Give bees a chance.
Roll back the Frankenfood and
pray the bee colonies return to pollinate our way to a full stomach.