Where Did the Bees Go?

We've mentioned a marked decline in bee populations before, but the Gray Lady reports that bees are vanishing in numbers far greater than previously anticipated, in what can only be described as a kind of anthophilic Rapture:

David Bradshaw has endured countless stings during his life as a beekeeper, but he got the shock of his career when he opened his boxes last month and found half of his 100 million bees. ...

"I have never seen anything like it," Mr. Bradshaw, 50, said from an almond orchard here beginning to bloom. "Box after box after box are just empty. There's nobody home." ...

Regional bee crises have happened before, but this is the first epidemic on a national scale, as bees fly off in search of pollen but fail to return to their colonies. Bee losses are ranging from 30 to 60 percent on the West Coast, but some beekeepers on the East Coast and in Texas are reporting losses of over 70 percent. (Beekeepers consider a loss of up to 20 percent during the offseason to be normal so you can imagine they're completely wigging out over this.)

The bee losses are especially distressing in light of a study last year that concluded that pollinators such as bees, birds and bats affect 35 percent of the world's crop production, increasing the output of 87 of the leading food crops worldwide.

Without our hardworking pollinators to help spread the pollen, a third of our crops, including fruits, vegetables, nuts, spices, an oilseed, won't get fertilized. In fact, we can thank the humble honey bee for every third bite we consume in our diet, says Zac Browning, vice president of the American Beekeeping Federation.

Researchers are throwing out various theories for the widespread disappearance: The bees are become exhausted or disoriented and eventually falling victim to the cold. Perhaps a group of pesticides that are banned in Europe (but presumably not in the U.S.) is somehow mucking up their internal compasses so they can't find their way home. Or, as others have conjectured, maybe the bees' immunity to viruses has invadvertently been lowered because they're being raised to survive a shorter offseason.

And what about hive-damaging mites, or the insecticides used to try and eradicate them? Can they be at fault? Africanized honeybees? Habitat loss? Global warming? JERRY FALWELL?

Beekeepers are also wringing their hands over the flood of imported honey from China and Argentina, which has depressed honey prices—further burdening domestic beekeepers as they seek out pollination contracts. ::The New York TImes
Photo credit: Ann Johansson/The New York Times

Tags: Bees

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