Honeybee: 'The canary in the coal mine' for environment
Since bees are essential agents of a healthy food system, their sudden decline should serve as a warning signal that there is something very wrong with our ecosystem.
Thursday, April 28, 2011 - 22:06
Photo: Ryan Wick/Flickr
Though we may often think of it as an annoying little pest, the honeybee is the most important species of pollinator on the planet. By pollinating numerous fruit and nut-bearing plant species, the honeybee ensures reproductive success for essential foods, such as oranges, peaches, blueberries, apples, plums, cherries and almonds. More importantly, the honeybee also serves as a keystone species in most ecosystems, meaning that it has a disproportionately large effect on its environment. In the case of the honeybee, the pollination services it provides allow plants to reproduce and maintain genetic diversity. Since securing the safety and security of our national food supply is an explicit national priority, securing the safety and security of America's honeybee population is crucial.
In recent years, this population has been decreasing at an alarming rate, threatening to disrupt ecosystems throughout North America. Oddly enough, millions of bees are disappearing without a trace. Forager bees are setting out to find pollen and are simply not returning to the hive. Not only is bee pollination estimated to have a commercial value of about $15-$20 billion a year, but it is also an important link in the ecosystem. Honeybees are part of the chain of food webs that support the existence of all higher forms of life. Without them, the populations of all animal species would drastically decrease, thereby significantly impacting food supply. This issue is not restricted to our continent: the United Nations recently called the shrinking honeybee population "a global phenomenon" after declines were reported in China, Japan, Egypt and several European nations.
The primary cause of this population decrease is a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder, or CCD. This disorder is notorious for causing the rapid loss of adult honeybees in a colony, with few or no dead adults remaining behind. However, though the adult honey bees disappear, the hive will still contain capped brood and food stores. This is particularly strange because honeybees do not usually abandon their developing young.
So what exactly is causing this mysterious disorder? It is believed that CCD is caused by a combination of factors, including environmental and nutritional stresses, new or re-emerging pathogens and a virus that targets the bees' immune systems, says Keith Delaplane, an entomologist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. Beyond this, the industrialization of farming, with its swaths of mono-cropping and chemical sprays, might be partly to blame. Scientists have posited that such widespread pesticide exposure could be making the bees more vulnerable to CCD. Pesticides are highly toxic even in small doses and could be affecting the bees in several ways: interfering with their homing skills, weakening their senses, or even impairing their memory. Researchers should test the effects of pesticides on the honeybee in correlation to CCD in order to identify the causes of this phenomenon.
UNEP's Executive Director Achim Steiner notes that the honeybee crisis is something of a litmus test for the way we will address our environmental impact in years to come: "Human beings have fabricated the illusion that in the 21st century they have the technological prowess to be independent of nature. Bees underline the reality that we are more, not less dependent on nature's services in a world of close to seven billion people. The way humanity manages or mismanages its nature-based assets, including pollinators, will in part define our collective future in the 21st century. The fact is that of the 100 crop species that provide 90 percent of the world's food, over 70 are pollinated by bees."
Edward O. Wilson, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and noted Harvard University Professor, echoes Achim Steiner's concerns. "Ecologists have long used the metaphor of the canary in the mine to caution humanity," he says. "Like the delicate little birds once carried into coal mines following explosions or fires in order to detect poisonous gases, some sensitive plants and animals around us, by virtue of their sickness and dying, give early warning of dangerous changes in our common environment." These so-called "canaries," the honeybees, serve to underscore how our future is interconnected with the way we treat our environment and fellow creatures. In other words, since bees are essential agents of a healthy food system, their sudden decline should serve as a warning signal that there is something very wrong with our ecosystem.
It is important to note that Wilson's "canary in the coal mine" comparison is not an empty metaphor. If the honeybee population continues to decline at the current rate, honeybees will cease to exist by 2035. Not only is this shockingly soon, but there is no artificial substitute for pollination that would be able to counteract this absence. If honeybees became extinct, most of the land ecosystems of the world would collapse and a good part of humanity would perish along with them. With information like this, the warning signs are starting to seem very clear. Wilson asks us to consider the inverse roles that humans and insects are playing in the grand scheme of environmental balance: "If all mankind were to disappear, the world would generate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed 10,000 years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos."
So, what are some possible next steps? According to a report published in March 2011 by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), one potential idea is for farmers and landowners to be offered incentives to restore pollinator-friendly habitats, including placing essential flowering plants alongside crop-producing fields. Additionally, the report cautions, more care needs to be taken in the choice, timing and application of insecticides and other chemicals. While managed hives can be moved out of harm's way, wild honeybee populations are entirely vulnerable. By taking these important steps in farming practices, it is possible to end colony collapse disorder and return the honeybee population to normal levels.
Some food for thought: when bees become sick, they sacrifice themselves by leaving the hive to die in order to prevent infecting the remainder of the colony. Imagine how our planet would thrive if humans acted within such a strict, selfless ecosystem code of ethics.