By Kevin H. Wirth, ARN Director of Product Development and Media Relations
Most of us have heard reports about problems with honeybees in recent years. As a long-time beekeeper (well, sort of -- I've been a beekeeper for the past 8 years running), I've followed the issue of the Big Bee Dieoff (CCD) with interest. In my opinion, one of the biggest problems in the beekeeping industry seems to be that of preserving the honeybee as the primary source of pollination for many of our crops. While I sympathize with the losses beekeepers have been subjected to in recent decades (I have lost many of my own hives), I think our focus needs to shift from preserving the honeybee to a focus on a much more pressing issue that has resulted from the decline of honeybee populations: the ability to pollinate our food sources effectively. In my view, we cannot continnue to rely on honeybees for pollinating our crops as heavily as we have in the past, and we need to shift very quickly from a focus on trying to fix the myriad problems facing the honeybee industry to a different pollination solution, or we will be facing a much more significant crisis than the loss of the honeybees: less food for our tables.
THE HONEYBEE DILEMMA
Imagine what it would be like if milk cows suddenly started dying off in vast numbers due to some unknown disease. Or if chickens the world over were suddenly overcome with a serious form of avian flu that rendered them unfit for human consumption or egg-laying. This is essentially the equivalent of what has been going on in the honeybee industry in recent years. Honeybees have suffered a tremendous series of hits beginning in the early 1980's when they began to be attacked rather hard by two types of parasites - tracheal mites and varroa mites. These mites can and often have decimated honeybee hives, and did such a great job of it in America that by the 1990's you'd have been hard pressed to find very many wild honeybee hives living in the USA. I well recall as a young man observing a honeybee hive in continuous operation for many years inside an oak tree in the neighborhood where I grew up. It's now long gone, and moreover, any feral hive is almost certain to be doomed by these mites within a short period of time (except in Hawaii, where the mites have not yet infiltrated, last I heard). Of course, these mites also attacked honeybess that were kept by bee keepers in large apiaries, and if just one hive got infected, you could count on it spreading rather rapidly to other hives in short order. This chain reaction has had the effect of wiping out hive colonies en masse over the years, and has provided beekeepers with a significant challenge: how to keep their hives strong and healty - strong enough in fact to produce enough honey to harvest and also enable their bees to survive into the next season.
Unfortunately, the treatment for these parasites has been a (get this) type of insecticide inserted into beehives that takes out the mites, but doesn't kill the bees. Well, it might not actually KILL the bees, but it certainly does weaken them. Plus, the insecticide percolates into the wax created by the bees. My advice for those of you who like to eat honeycomb: don't do it. That wax is most likely contaminated with a variety of pesticides - even from hives that are supposedly organic. Pesticides are picked up by the bees from the sources they visit for pollen and nectar, and you can't control whether the bees fly to locations where pesticides are used. So just because a beekeeper doesn't use any pesticides and calls his honey "organic" doesn't necessarily mean it's free from pesticides (unless he can certify that no one sprays within at least 4 miles of his beehives).
Anyway, for many years now, the mites (as you might have guessed) have built up a resistance to the insecticide used by many beekeepers, and so this treatment has become less and less effective against mites in recent years (just like DDT). A newer and safer treatment is formic acid, but there are handling issues for beekeepers. It's a product that requires extreme caution - but it does seem to be effective, and much safer for both the bees and humans if used properly.
So the mites are still a huge problem, and beekeepers continue to do battle with them. Any major beekeeper has to fight this battle in some way (and win) if he expects to continue with a viable honeybee business.
Add to all this the genetically modified Africanized honeybee (aka "Killer Bees") that have now invaded much of the Southern USA and are presently extending their range. These bees are actually very productive when it comes to honey, however, they will often take over a beehive without the beekeeper's knowledge. The problem is, these bees are 30x more aggressive than the usual breeds of honeybees used by commercial beekeepers, and pose a significant threat to humans and animals. As they continue to expand their range, they will continue to be a thorn in the side of commercial beekeepers.
ENTER THE NEW DISORDER: CCD
In just the past few years, beekeepers have seen their hives decimated by yet another type of challenge - only this one is invisible, and no one has any answers for it yet. We still do not understand for sure what causes Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). But we do know that commercially kept honeybees are dying off in great numbers. And, this IS having a very disasterous result on crops that have become dependent upon commercial beekeepers providing honeybees for pollinating those crops.
And that is the issue that needs to be addressed. Many in the beekeeping industry seem to think that the solution needs to be finding a way to preserve honeybees -- but this view is based on the self-interest of the beekeeper, not the real issue we are facing with the sudden die-off of honeybees. The real issue is finding alternative ways of pollinating our crops.
CAUSE FOR ALARM
The problem with the honeybees is cause for alarm since much of the food we eat is dependant upon them as pollinators for much of our nation's fruit trees, vegetables, and many other plants that bear fruit. Many states which produce much of our food, particularly California, have come to rely on honeybees for setting the fuit for everything from almonds to watermelons.
With the widespread and deep collapse of the honeybee brought on by mites and CCD, alternatives are not only a good idea, it's fast becoming a necessity. The longer we wait to implement these alternatives, the more disasterous will be the effect on our ability to produce the food we need.
Here is where I'm going to offer my observations and suggestions regarding what needs to be done about this problem.
1) Increase the use of alternative pollinators. While it is important to figure out what's killing off the honeybees and figuring out a recovery strategy, my opinion is that it is far more important to launch one or more agressive alternative pollination strategies. Fixing the honeybee problem is not the solution to pollinating our crops. We need to see the deployment of massive numbers of alternative pollinators. Honeybees are not the only pollinators that can be used to get crops "set" so that fruit and vegetables will grow. My own experience shows that a variety of other insects will also participate in pollination activity if they are given the chance. If they become part of the natural habitat, they will reproduce to whatever extent a nearby crop requires. Many studies indicate that honeybees outperform natural pollinators by only a factor of 10%, which is significant, but hardly the disaster many seem to indicate regarding this crisis. Some would have us think that without honeybees, many crops would simply not get pollinted at all. Personally, I think this is a lot of hype. Alternative pollinators do exist, and can even be encouraged to grow (and I believe their numbers WOULD grow if they did not have to compete with artifically inserted honeybees brought in by beekeepers during the bloom season).
For example, I have a raspberry field on my property, and I can vouch for the fact that bumblebees outperform my honeybees for pollination on a scale of at least 10 to 1. When my raspberry plants are in bloom, I can see scores of bumblebees engaged in pollination, and hardly any honeybees, even though they are more numerous and are close by.
Bumblebees - will pollinate some crops that honeybees often won't even touch where I live (like raspberries, for example)
Masonbees - will pollinate almost anything, and are a viable alternative to honeybees.
Leafcutter bees - are opportunists, ie, they will go wherever there is pollen.
Honeybees are currently by far and away the most relied-upon source of pollination for many key crops all across America, which means if something were to ever happen to honeybees, there go many of our crops (and that's exactly what we're looking at...). So, I think we need to focus on stimulating and growing a variety of home-based indigenous pollinators on a massive scale.
2) Increase the diversity of honeybees used in commercial operations. If we MUST use honeybees (and I don't think we must, but, if we do...) then we should be encouraging the use of a much wider variety of honeybees that are more naturally resistent to varroa and tracheal mites (cetain genetic factors and grooming behaviors contribute to increased survivability against mite infestations among different varieties of honeybees). Currently, the variety of honeybee used by most commercial beekeepers is the Italian. Other varieties have proven to be superior survivors against the mites, and so at the very least, we should be encouraging the distribution of a much broader blend of such honeybees. Thus far, we've only seen experimental efforts, not the widespread implementation I think is needed.
In addition, there is another factor that seems to help: honeybees that create a smaller cell size. Almost all commercial beekeepers place their bees in hives containing frames. Each frame has a standard sized wax-coated "template" (known as "foundation" within the industry) with the initial dimples in place for each honeycomb cell. By making the cell sizes smaller on these templates, some beekeepers in Arizona have shown encouraging results in keeping varroa mite populations down. Beekeepers should pursue this avenue on a much larger scale, keeping in mind that bee size is a function of both inherited characteristics and cell size. Just as farmers breed cows for various traits, so the beekeeper can also choose to use different strains of bees for his enterprise.
In my own bee colonies, I experimented by placing empty hive boxes below boxes with frames, thus allowing the bees to create wax comb below the frames at the size THEY wanted rather than using the size dictated to them by the frame templates. The results were impressive - they survived much better.
So far, there has been lots of talk about what the industry must do so recover from these challenges, but I've not seen much action in implementing what we know will help on the scale that is needed.
There is a lot of tire-spinning going on around this issue, and it's not being treated with the significance it requires. In my view, the problem is solvable, if only we would get out of the "paralysis of analysis" stage and start taking actions we know will improve the situation. Saving the honeybees isn't the main issue (but that's how the matter seems to be viewed by too many folks) - getting our crops pollinated is. We can live without as much honey as we've become accustomed to -- but we sure can't live without the food our growers have come to rely solely on honeybees to pollinate. I say, let's get other pollinators into the mix, and pronto, before we find ourselves in the middle of a much more serious crisis than the loss of the honeybees.
Another site worth looking at:
Seattle area writer and Darwin skeptic Kevin Wirth is a founding member of ARN (formerly Students for Origins Research). He is also the Senior editor, contributor, and publisher of the book "Slaughter of the Dissidents: The Shocking Truth About Killing the Careers of Darwin Doubters" by Dr. Jerry Bergman (2008). This is the most comprehensive book published to date documenting the extent and types of discrimination against Darwin Dissidents. He is also the publisher of Caroline Crocker's upcoming book "Free to Think," (Leafcutter Press) which addresses her critics and relates her experience as an Expelled University professor. Her book is currently slated for release in June of 2009.
To read more essays by Kevin Wirth, click here.
Copyright (c) 2009 by Kevin H. Wirth, all rights reserved. Quotes and links are welcomed with attribution.
No Pingbacks for this post yet...
|<< <||> >>|
Evolution has become a favorite topic of the news media recently, but for some reason, they never seem to get the story straight. The staff at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture started this Blog to set the record straight and make sure you knew "the rest of the story".
A blogger from New England offers his intelligent reasoning.
We are a group of individuals, coming from diverse backgrounds and not speaking for any organization, who have found common ground around teleological concepts, including intelligent design. We think these concepts have real potential to generate insights about our reality that are being drowned out by political advocacy from both sides. We hope this blog will provide a small voice that helps rectify this situation.
Website dedicated to comparing scenes from the "Inherit the Wind" movie with factual information from actual Scopes Trial. View 37 clips from the movie and decide for yourself if this movie is more fact or fiction.
Don Cicchetti blogs on: Culture, Music, Faith, Intelligent Design, Guitar, Audio
Australian biologist Stephen E. Jones maintains one of the best origins "quote" databases around. He is meticulous about accuracy and working from original sources.
Most guys going through midlife crisis buy a convertible. Austrialian Stephen E. Jones went back to college to get a biology degree and is now a proponent of ID and common ancestry.
Complete zipped downloadable pdf copy of David Stove's devastating, and yet hard-to-find, critique of neo-Darwinism entitled "Darwinian Fairytales"
Intelligent Design The Future is a multiple contributor weblog whose participants include the nation's leading design scientists and theorists: biochemist Michael Behe, mathematician William Dembski, astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, philosophers of science Stephen Meyer, and Jay Richards, philosopher of biology Paul Nelson, molecular biologist Jonathan Wells, and science writer Jonathan Witt. Posts will focus primarily on the intellectual issues at stake in the debate over intelligent design, rather than its implications for education or public policy.
A Philosopher's Journey: Political and cultural reflections of John Mark N. Reynolds. Dr. Reynolds is Director of the Torrey Honors Institute at