Bees, Plankton, and Canaries: Who Is to Blame; Them or Us?

A detailed shot of a bee flying over yellow flowers.

Robert Pickett / Getty Images

Please join us in welcoming a our special guest, Russ George. Russ has a completely out-of-the-hive idea to share with us: posing a hypothesis that is sure to get a buzz going.

Open letter to all those who love a roll with a little honey.

Like many I am struck by the catastrophic collapse of our bees. This year's surveyed beekeepers reported a total loss of 36.1 percent of their honey bee colonies, up 13.5 percent from the previous year. The crisis of the vanishing bees is worse and proceeding faster than anyone imagined it might. While I applaud all efforts of those working to preserve and protect our bees it seems to me that most are avoiding consideration of a plausible cause.

While many point fingers at the usual suspects, identifying 'them' who make and use pesticides and ravage natural habitats as the villains of bee colony collapse, in my view "they" are not the core of the problem: it is an "us," not a "them" causation. Our emission of the hundreds of billions of tonnes of CO2 from burning of fossil fuels has filled our and the bees atmosphere with a concentration of CO2 40% higher than in the previous century. This high and rising CO2 is now clearly seen to be producing profound effects on a variety of delicately balanced life forms and their ecologies, our planetary canaries. As our canaries drop dead before our eyes most would expect that we would respond and remove the source of the problem, as we surely will not be able to evacuate this carbon burning mine-scape we call Earth.

One could not more divinely design a 'CO2 canary' for our planetary coal mine than the incredible, improbable bee. Every feature of form and function in bees focuses their evolution on living and managing with a slightly high CO2 level common to their hives - but not so high as our present air.

Bees manage their social lives around CO2 in their colonies; and, when CO2 rises just a few percent above normal levels they exhibit what had, until now, been a workable and wonderful response.

First, they begin to fan their wings to circulate air through the colony and then, if that fails to lower the CO2 levels sufficiently, workers begin to sacrifice themselves one by one, flying to a lonely death. Curiously, 80 years ago bee scientists noted that CO2 was the controlling factor in bee colonies. Later scientists observed that bees exposed to high CO2 become incapable of performing their normally incredible navigation skills and become lost bees. It can be no wonder that with our recently imposed 44% higher CO2, - often 2-4 times higher locally - bees have no means to know that their time tested last gasp means to protect the colony will not suffice.

Should our bees go extinct in as few as ten years, as many experts suggest, so go the majority of our most loved and nutritious human foods, including many of our fruits, vegetables, oil crops, clovers and alfalfas for our livestock and a more. Bees pollinate one sixth of all flowering plants and about 400 agriculture plants. As one expert put it: without bees you had better love gruel, for that is what will remain for us.

It is neither sufficient nor effective to point fingers at the usual suspects while slightly minimizing our individual carbon footprints. It is already far too late for that approach to succeed. Today there is more than sufficient fossil CO2 loaded in the atmosphere, with a residence time there being centuries if we leave it there, to kill all of our planetary cohabitant birds and bees and more.

The most endangered global canaries are not our tiny insect friends but rather our tiniest plants who also evolved a delicately balanced life and ecology with regard to CO2 levels. Our ocean phyto-plankton living in an ever acidifying ocean are even more rapidly disappearing than our beloved honeys. Before we simply take the passive role of merely slowing our rapacious appetite for fossil energy and pointing fingers of blame on "them that done it" we must employ ourselves to remove the CO2 from the air and the only hope of doing so is to engage in ecorestoration and employ enhanced photosynthesis.

Just as the multitudes of bee pollinators cannot possibly be replaced by human hands, photosynthesis also requires the help of the even greater multitudes of plants especially those in that part of this blue planet that makes our blue home Mother Ocean not Mother Earth.

Russ George

Ecorestoration Foundation, San Francisco

Selected references:
Beekeepers Report Continued Heavy Losses From Colony Collapse Disorder

Vanishing Bees - Documentary Movie Site -- Watch the Movie Trailer
Wikipedia reference
Honey Bee Research and Extension Laboratory, Department of Entomology and Nematology, University of Florida

Salt Lake Tribute, Utah bee population hit by deadly disease, crops could be affected
Mid Atlantic Apiariay Research Consortium
Disappearing bees threaten ice cream sellers

High Country News, The Silence of the Bees
Guardian, World carbon dioxide levels highest for 650,000 years, says US report

Purdue University, CO2 Level maps of the USA, YouTube video