Bees Swarm Media

Honeybee ColonyIs it still possible to take bees for granted? Since the general population learned about colony collapse disorder, the mysterious effect that has destroyed a large percentage of the world’s pollinators in a 2007 broadcast of CBS’s 60 Minutes and the publicity in its wake, people have come to appreciate bees for the critical work they do. Before, when someone was asked to think of the first word that comes to mind when they hear “bee,” they might have said “sting” or “honey.” Now they just might say “food” or “survival.”

That’s our survival, not just theirs.

Honeybees are critical to the food supply. Like tomatoes, cucumbers, blueberries, squash, almonds, and melons of all types? Thank the bees. It’s estimated that of the 100 food crops grown around the world, crops that supply 90% of the world’s food, bees pollinate 70 of them. Without bees, there would be no watermelons, no blueberry cobbler, no marinara. It’s estimated that bees, acting as pollinators, add $15 billion a year to food production.

Of course, gardeners have always known the importance of bees.

Bees and colony collapse disorder continue to draw attention. Bees are on the cover of Time magazine this week, and even though the story continues to promote the “we don’t know” and “variety of reasons” line about colony collapse, the publicity can only do the bees good. The question: why would bees, sometimes during the least opportune season, suddenly abandon their hives and disappear?

The reasons for colony collapse might not be completely understood, but let your curious and conclusion-drawing Planet Natural Blogger go out on a limb here and say that the evidence is pointing more and more towards a certain kind of pesticide called neonicotinoids (scroll down). Neonicotinoids are a type of pesticide known as “systematics.” Seeds — mostly corn, canola, and soybeans — are pretreated with the pesticide. The pesticide grows with the plant, spreading to every part of it. While bees don’t need to pollinate corn and soybeans, they will visit these plants. And they’re also exposed to the pesticide contained in its pollen when that pollen is spread by the wind. Neonicotinoids are reputedly safer for mammals than other pesticides. But the evidence is incomplete and the pesticide stays in the environment for months, even years. (These crops, including soybeans, are treated with pesticides and fungicides as well.)

Here’s a great article from the Boston Globe published in June about three men — a professor of environmental health, a bee keeper, and an entomologist — who joined forces to research colony collapse. Their conclusion focuses squarely on neonicotinoids.

Those with interests to protect are suggesting that there isn’t any one single reason for colony collapse. And they may be right. But those reasons probably aren’t equal. Pesticides most likely are doing the greatest damage. The spread of mites and medications are also a problem. But bees are less able to resist those pests the more they’re exposed to pesticides. Another reason often given for colony collapse is that there’s less for bees to eat now that the world is planted in corn and soybeans. But that wouldn’t explain why a swarm would suddenly decide to desert their hive in the dead of winter.

And, of course, Monsanto is looking to make a profit from the pollinators distress by introducing a new product designed to control the mites that affect bees. They even held a “bee health summit” earlier this summer. But beekeepers worry that this would just make them dependent on another chemical fix for their already over-medicated hives.

Meanwhile, bees have made it to the big screen. More Than Honey  is a fascinating look at the creatures and at their keepers, as well as colony collapse, in different parts of the world. The film, released earlier this summer, is slowly making the rounds of cinema houses and places where documentaries are shown. Bee-ing (couldn’t resist) well-connected in the world of pollinators, we got to see an advance screening. The film is full of amazing photography showing bees up close and personal, right down to their honey-dipping proboscises. Once you see it, you’ll never take bees for granted again.

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