I love that old story about the man visiting someone and when he was served a meagre amount of honey he responded, ‘Ah, I see you keep a bee!’ I heard it was said by a Scottish aristocrat and it’s also been attributed to an Irish farmer but whoever actually said it originally was very quick witted. It is not quite as funny today as it once was though because, believe it or not, there’s quite a buzz in the bee world and unfortunately it is not the bees that are making it.
Without sounding too dramatic, bees are mysteriously disappearing without a trace and it threatens everything. To many urbanites the bee symbolises nothing but a picnic nuisance and, at best, the giver of honey, but the bee has a much greater role in our survival than many of us contemplate. Albert Einstein is alleged to have speculated: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left.” Let’s hope he was wrong.
It was early in 2007 that news agencies first began reporting on the phenomenon about beekeepers in the US going to their hives and discovering that their bees had vanished. Sometimes, all that remained were the queen bee and a few baby bees. The beekeepers did not find any evidence of the usual bee predators, such as wasps or animals that like honey. Neither did they find any trace of large numbers of dead bees, nor any sign of bee diseases; they had simply disappeared.
While scientists in the US scratched their heads and became alarmed, the vanishing bee phenomenon spread right across Europe. Literally billions of honey bees worldwide have just gone missing in the past twelve months. Initially the absence of the bee is something you wouldn’t particularly notice and given that there haven’t been too many days for sitting in the garden this summer it is even less obvious. My Dad drew my attention to one particular area of flowers in our garden over the weekend. Traditionally in July it has always been a place of great bee activity; this year there is silence.
It was only through a little research of my own that I realised the importance of this little creature and how much I had forgotten from secondary school biology. On reflection maybe they have just packed up and left out of lack of appreciation. The bee is a really important part of our delicate ecosystem. Our food supply is under real threat because while honey production is the obvious victim the honeybee is also vital to the human food chain as it is the main pollinator of hundreds of types of food crops, nuts, flowers, vegetables and fruits.
This also impacts the medical world as lots of nutrients from plants are extracted for use in medicines. It is no surprise that scientists and those in the food and drug industry find the news reports of disappearing bees alarming. Although Einstein may have miscalculated his four year theory, the missing bees will impact honey and food production dramatically. In some parts of the world people are actually hand pollinating using large feather duster-like sticks to dust the trees and plants. It is taking huge manpower and time to do what the bees did naturally.
There are a number of theories being thrown around as to why this is happening. In the US stress is quoted as one. If it wasn’t such a serious matter the idea of stressed-out bees is hilarious, but it does have some foundation. In recent years, honeybees have been undergoing great stress as an increasing number of beekeepers have taken to filling up huge trucks with them and travelling across the country seeking pollination work.
These bees may be suffering from the effects of fatigue and an unhealthy diet that includes artificial bee foods. It is kind of similar to us replacing meals with special diet bars and energy drinks. However, that wouldn’t necessarily be the case here and in mainland Europe.
Some researchers are of the opinion that the increasing number of wireless communication towers and mobile phone masts are the problem. They say that the signals from the masts are interfering with the bees’ navigation systems and preventing them from finding their way back to the hives. There is ongoing investigation into this.
Another suggestion is that the growing use of chemical herbicides and pesticides, which are ingested by bees when they make their daily pollination trips, are killing them off. Apparently beehives that are kept for commercial purposes are also fumigated regularly with chemicals to get rid of harmful mites. Genetically modified crops, which could be producing pollen with poor nutritional value, are another suspect. All these chemicals may have tipped the balance leading to the collapse of bee populations. This theory is quite popular as organically raised bees, which are not subjected to genetically modified crops and chemicals, are not undergoing the Colony Collapse Disorder, as it is now called. However it still leaves the question of where are the dead bee bodies?
Scientists are also wondering whether global warming could be accelerating the growth rates of bee killers like fungi, viruses and mites, which are known to adversely affect bee colonies. The unusual fluctuations in weather patterns, which are also thought to be caused by global warming, could also be affecting bee populations, which are used to more consistent patterns of weather.
Despite all the debate and speculation there is still no consensus among the experts and looking at all the theories offered, who’s to say it is not a combination of a few. The mystery of the missing bees, which sounds like a case for Sherlock Holmes, is confounding the brightest. If there were bodies we might have something to go on, we could call it Mad Bee Disease but the mystery is only deepened by the lack of physical evidence; where have they gone? In America the losses haven’t yet impacted on the consumer or shop shelves but, according to the experts, it is only a matter of time. The price of honey will also rise in the coming months.
If you do see a honey bee this summer, instead of trying to swat it with your newspaper for fear it might sting you, stop and marvel at this furry little creature that is so important to our survival. We might not miss them until it is too late. It’s a fragile little world indeed.