BIOLOGY: HOW AGRICULTURE IS PUTTING POLLINATORS IN DANGER
Is the bee virus bunk?
Even Jerry Seinfeld knows bees are no laughing matter. When they are at risk, so is much of the world's food supply - which is why recent colony collapses sent scientists rushing to their labs for answers. They ultimately blamed a rogue virus. But one Vancouver scientist says there's a bigger problem. And the real crisis still lies ahead. Andrew Nikiforuk reports
Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning science writer. He is currently teaching at Simon Fraser University.
November 3, 2007
VANCOUVER -- Last year, Mark Winston, one of the world's foremost authorities on honey bees, retired his trusty bee veil, collected his last batch of Heavenly Honey and closed his lab at Simon Fraser University. And then he cried.
The 57-year-old, you must understand, simply loves bees. To show how they share directions to flowers kilometres away, he has performed "bee dances" on television. He has dressed movie stars in "bee beards" because "it's what beekeepers do to have fun." And, yes, he has also written several books and more than 150 articles on bee biology.
So why did he abandon his beloved hives? He closed his apiary before "colony collapse disorder" wiped out a third of American honey bees this year. But he says the bee virus that officials blame for this devastation is only a minor character in a larger tragedy.
The real crisis ahead is what he has dubbed "agricultural collapse disorder," the impact of bee farming itself. And if things don't change, there's much more than honey at stake. About one-third of the world's food depends on bees for pollination. In North America alone, honey bees pollinate more than $16-billion worth of almonds, cucumbers, berries, apples and canola every year.
As a young biologist, Prof. Winston fancied the idea of "a khaki-clothed scientist tramping through the jungle." So he jumped at the opportunity to study in French Guiana in 1973. When the young researcher arrived, however, he was given another outfit - full protective gear to help him examine a small colony of aggressive "killer bees."
"I opened the hive and nothing happened," he recalls. "I remember looking in and wondering what was going on. They were busy and active and focused. My gloves came off. My veil came off. I was immersed in the world of bees."
From Africanized bees, Winston soon graduated to the European honey bee (Apis mellifera), which colonists introduced to this continent in the 16th century. There are about eight species of honey bees in total and most have been on the planet 30 million years. But although Aristotle and Plato studied the social creatures, big questions remain about their basic biology.
In 1980, Prof. Winston started keeping his own bees - for both research purposes and some mean batches of honey - on the campus of Simon Fraser University and throughout British Columbia's Fraser Valley. At one point, he and his "swarm team" of 30 students and technicians managed 200 colonies, or about 10 million bees. And his lab soon grew famous not just for its scientific findings on bee scents, but for communicating information to beekeepers in a useful way.
To this day, Prof. Winston describes the gentle pollinators as "pussycats. ... You could work these bees naked if you want to." In fact, he has known beekeepers who do strip to the buff while attending to their bees. "It makes them respectful and careful and present in the moment."
Still, being careful and present in the moment didn't help beekeepers when colony collapse disorder first appeared in 2004. They would check on hives only to find them totally abandoned save for honey and young larvae. "It's like somebody swept the boxes out. There were just no bees," one Pennsylvania apiarist noted.
Last spring, the scale of the disappearances started to make headlines. Then came a host of theories on hive abandonment.
Radiation from cellphone towers may have disoriented the flight of bees, some experts argued. Others blamed the impact of genetically modified crops, drought and highly toxic pesticides. Internet doomsayers even put forward the idea of a "bee rapture," a biblical calling of bees to heaven.
The debate soon launched a series of costly genetic studies by U.S. scientists.
And last September a group of entomologists at Pennsylvania State University and the U.S. Bee Research Laboratory reported that Israeli acute paralysis virus may have been the culprit.
The virus, which causes bees to die of paralysis outside the hive, was first identified in Israel in 2004. It was found in most hives affected by colony collapse.
Although there is no treatment for the virus, some beekeepers received this news with relief. It suggested a simple explanation to a baffling problem.
Along with a growing number of scientists, though, Prof. Winston believes that the crisis goes much deeper.
He says the industrialization of bee farming has made bees more susceptible to mass die-offs and abrupt disappearances.
In fact, colony collapse disorder may be as much a symptom of bad agricultural management as mad-cow disease among ruminants fed industrial animal feed or wasting viral diseases afflicting crowded pig factories or explosions of sea lice among farmed salmon.
By "separating bees from their keepers," Prof. Winston argues, modern farming has increasingly exposed bees to a host of debilitating parasites, pesticides, antibiotics and malnutrition.
THE FARM THREAT
The roots of the current bee crisis probably date back to the importation of European species 400 years ago. They displaced wild bees and exploded in numbers. By the 1920s, farmers had become dependent on them to pollinate everything from clover to pumpkins. This meant that they also became more aggressive at fighting American foul brood, a century-old bacterial bee killer, with antibiotics.
"And then they imported the pests," Prof. Winston says.
In the early 1980s, global trade in bees introduced two troublesome parasites: varroa mites from Asia and tracheal mites from Europe. The blood suckers can overwhelm a hive in days and result in dead bees and "disappearances."
In response, U.S. farmers started to douse their colonies with highly toxic pesticides such as Apistan - even though scientists noted that colonies chemically treated for both mite plagues died a lot faster. Desperate beekeepers also inundated hives with a pharmacopeia of other chemicals to combat resistant bacterial infections or new protozoan infections (a growing problem in Ontario).
"The image that comes to mind," Prof. Winston says, "is dumping everything in your medicine cabinet into the hive and, when that doesn't work, using an underground system to purchase illegal vats of pesticides."
But the war has not gone well. Pesticide-resistant mite populations have boomed, particularly in the United States. These mites, in turn, carry up to 25 different viral diseases such as the Kashmir bee virus, sacbrood virus and the latest culprit, the Israel acute paralysis virus.
Even though Canadian beekeepers haven't industrialized as completely as their American counterparts, "we are on a chemical treadmill and we have to get off," admits Heather Clay of the Canadian Honey Council.
But chemicals are only part of the problem. As farms grew larger in scale in the 1960s, the local habitats for wild bees shrunk.
Now, many farmers import bees thousands of kilometres, say from Florida to California, to pollinate vast monocultures of almond trees. Such long distances stress out the bees, Prof. Winston says. "We need to respect limits."
Malnutrition has become another issue. Fed on a monotonous diet of almond or melon pollen, bees do about as well as humans fed a singular diet of beef. Single-crop farms simply do not provide them what they need: a diversity of pollen sources. And chronic exposure to new classes of insecticides such as neonicotinoids is a growing concern.
"You take colonies invaded by mites and viruses and then move them to pollinate crops," Prof. Winston says. "Then you starve them in monocultures where they are foraging on an environment overexposed to pesticides. And then we change the climate, making it too warm or too wet. Bees don't do well in drought or damp conditions."
In other words, bee health has now hit the wall. Is bees' susceptibility to viral infections - or the "mystery" of mass die-offs and disappearances - all that surprising?
COLLABORATING WITH NATURE
Prof. Winston continues to study bees. But since he closed his apiary, deeply frustrated with the state of bee farming, he has refocused his teaching. He now preaches bee-like virtues of collaboration and congeniality to undergraduates in a unique interdisciplinary program at SFU that focuses on civic dialogue. "My experience with bees grew into a serious concern about how we teach students to engage with the world," he says.
He also thinks there needs to be a greater dialogue about both beekeeping and the future of agriculture beyond the classroom. And he would like the federal government, which currently employs but one lonely bee expert, to play a much more active role - regulating chemicals and bee movement and running routine inspection of hives for disease.
Ultimately, though, what he wants is less "management" and more care in the beekeeping business.
He notes with some irony that the city of Vancouver now supports a greater diversity of pollinating bees than pesticide-rich fields in the Fraser Valley do. Urban parks, home gardens and patches of wildness have provided asylums from overmanagement.
"Our agricultural philosophy is all about overwhelming nature rather than collaborating with it," he says. "If we could hear bees talk, they would be crying right now and they would saying, 'Leave us alone.' "