Monotech: What agribusiness has done to the honeybee

Honeybees are hardly the developed world's first species to suffer a quick, curious demise in their number. "We're the ultimate cause in that we've changed the planet to suit our needs. We're running it to suit our needs and not to the benefit of all the organisms around us," explained Jeffery Pettic...

The clamor of alarm bells set off by colony collapse disorder this past winter should have been ringing some time ago. Given that the rise in harrowing natural catastrophes and ecological upheaval – and the looming escalation in both their frequency and ferocity – are (finally) bringing an uphill battle against climate change to the fore, a wave of inexplicable carnage probably shouldn't come as such a shock.

After all, honeybees are hardly the developed world's first species to suffer a quick, curious demise in their number. The Achilles heel of modernity is that we rarely look before we leap – and we rarely stop leaping until we've landed ourselves in some degree of magnificent chaos, usually at another species' expense.

"We're the ultimate cause in that we've changed the planet to suit our needs. We're running it to suit our needs and not to the benefit of all the organisms around us," explained Jeffery Pettic, leader of the USDA's honeybee research lab, during a salon.com expert's round table when asked if he thought people were the ultimate cause of CCD. "Honeybees aren't totally domesticated, but we have tried to domesticate them. We've tried to make bees more gentle and make more honey. In enhancing certain traits, we make the bees more susceptible to other things."

That list of other potential things has become quite bewildering: The encroachment of urbanization, toxicity from pesticides and genetically modified crops, tracheal and Varroa mite infestations, Nosema ceranae and other fungi, African honeybee genes, bacteria from small hive beetles, poor nutrition from fructose-spiked corn syrup, stress from unprecedented migration, immune deficiencies and – as widely misreported – cell phone radiation. Moreover, as another eminent honeybee researcher, Eric Mussen, noted in that same online round table, "you're going to find that in most cases, there is not going to be one factor that did them in; it's going to be a combination. This is the perfect storm for honeybees."

Herein lies the crux of the quandary: our impulse to determine a causal relationship between CCD and something other than our own voraciousness. Perhaps the most disturbing symptom of CCD is its rapid tenacity, but this trait has largely skewed discussion, especially in the conventional media. Lost in the kerfuffle are telltale aspects of the issue such as that offered by two Pennsylvania-based researchers, whose recent paper traces colony collapses "that are reminiscent of the present situation" as far back as 1869.

While close to a third of the US's 2.4 million colonies have been lost this past winter, about three quarters of those losses are attributable to previously established threats. Far more disconcerting is the fact that the number of managed US honeybee colonies has been gradually cut in half since the early '70s – or that the North American diet has come to rely so inherently on a pollinator that isn't even native to the continent.

"The commercial beekeeping industry is just a cog in the big industrial wheel," says Sharon Labchuk, leader of the provincial Green Party in Prince Edward Island, Canada, and a small-scale organic beekeeper. "The industrial agriculture model has destroyed pollinating insects through its chemicals and through its clear cutting of forests and plowing under the prairies. It's destroyed habitat for not only insects, but for everything else that would normally live in those kinds of ecosystems. We've destroyed the natural world within the area that we've killed, and we've also destroyed the vicinity through chemical use."

Labchuk also points to a little known peculiarity that bodes ill for the health of the honeybee: the super-sized wax foundations used in commercial beekeeping operations. Whereas the combs created by natural worker brood are about 4.6 mm in diameter, manufacturers have increased the size of wax foundations – beginning about a century ago, according to Labchuk – to 5.4 mm wide in an effort to create larger honeybees and, in turn, more honey (and, tellingly, more money). Given the way honeybees use their combs to reproduce, the Frankenstein-esque result has been a species that is half as large again as is natural, and an increased vulnerability to mite infestations due to the extra space in the combs themselves.

"You've got bees that were made to be bigger the same way we've made cows, pigs and chickens bigger, because bigger is better in the industrial model," quips Labchuk. "We produce everything using an industrial model which is insatiable, which is one in which economic growth is the mantra and in which economic growth is seen as a good thing."

As an indicator of how potentially overbearing that mantra can be, take the almond farming industry in California's Central Valley, which supplies 80 percent of the world's almond crop. The state's almond acreage has grown by 40 percent in the last two decades, and is projected to grow by another 30 percent by 2010. More than a million hives are required for pollination in February and March of every year, and that number is expected to surge to a point where the entire commercial honeybee population will be needed to do the same job within the next five years. It's also worth noting that once the almond crop has been dealt with, those same bees embark on a migrate-and-pollinate mission that reaches most of the continental US – all told, the USDA estimates that pollination has improved crop yields and quality to the tune of $20 billion annually.

"Honeybees are in effect six-legged livestock that both manufacture agricultural commodities – honey and wax – and, more importantly, contribute agricultural services – pollination. Close to 100 crop species in the US rely to some degree on pollination services provided by this one species – collectively, these crops make up approximately 1/3 of the US diet, including the majority of high-value crops that contribute to healthy diets," Dr. May Berenbaum – one of the authors of a National Academy of Sciences report from last October about the declining state of North America's pollinators – told the US Congress in late March. "It is difficult to think of any other multi-billion-dollar agricultural enterprise that is so casually monitored."

Beyond shoddy surveillance, the big issue here is the free market's complicity in not recognizing or respecting the complexity of our natural ecosystems. That we've elevated the honeybee to a keystone role in our food chain may yet become the ultimate irony when the world's greediest consumers begin to truly understand the prospect of colony collapse.

A surprising number of news reports (elite media among them) about CCD relayed a quote attributed to Albert Einstein about the fact that humans would die out in four years if bees were to disappear – an attribution that bears absolutely no evidence. Perhaps, given the potentially greater implications of colony collapse disorder, the verifiable words of Harvard biologist and author E.O. Wilson are a bit closer to the mark: "So important are insects and other land dwelling arthropods, that if all were to disappear, humanity could not last more than a few months."