Today half of the world's population of honeybees have disappeared. Not only are the honeybees vanishing, but the entire interdependent chain that links animal to plant life is being disrupted. As honeybees disappear, so do many naturally grown fruits and vegetables. A sad day indeed for humans. But aside from the food they pollinate, they are also integral to the reproduction of many plants and flowers that benefit other species.
Researchers are scrambling to find answers to what they are calling one of the more bizarre mysteries ever to happen in the natural world. There has been a range of theories to try to explain the honeybees' disappearance. Mites and the pesticides used to control them; viruses, fungi or poor bee nutrition; radiation from mobile phones interfering with honeybee navigation systems; solar flare activity; even the geomagnetic orientation of the Earth. But none of these theories can identify what or why these home loving species stray or why their disappearance has become a global phenomenon.
The Cost of Human Interference
Follow me to a story that broke in 2005, but has been under study since the mid 90s. Rogue elephants, first in India then Africa started attacking villages. What made this so unusual was the pachyderms were using human intelligence to carry out the assault, like blocking escape routes and pinning down humans before goring them to death.
The reason for the meyhem? Researchers think it's an emergent, species-wide, emotional breakdown. The result of human interference over extended periods of time, the consequence of which has lead to the destruction of important social bonds in elephant kingdoms.
[img_assist|nid=534|title=|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=231|height=235]Honeybees, like elephants are highly evolved and have given rise to thousands of descendant species, some of which live a solitary life and others that lived in colonies. The honeybee is one of the earth's most social and ecologically important creatures. They pollinate over 90 per cent of the world's food crops. They live in societies that rival our own in size and complexity. A single nest may contain as many as 30,000 bees. Together they build and repair their home, harvest and prepare food for the entire colony and instruct the next generation in honeybee behaviour including learning how to fly. Scouts find the flowers that provide a high yield of nectar or pollen by merging many sources of information including the position of the sun and the subtle nuance of a flower's scent. When a spot promises abundance, they fly back to the nest and waggle out a GPS-type dance which provides the exact directions to the field of plenty.
They never sleep nor do they hibernate during the winter and they manage all this with less than one million neurons contained in brain tissue that is smaller than a single cubic millimeter. That’s a neural density 10 times higher than our own cerebral cortex. In fact, honeybee neurons are so advanced we have neither the skill nor the imagination to understand how they are interconnected.
Why Are Bees Taking Flight?
In many cases commercial honeybees are so domesticated, they can no longer live without human support. They are stored in air tight containers where pathogens grow from the inside out. They are fed artificial sugar water and trucked for thousands of miles in short periods of time, in order to maximize business opportunities during pollination season. Then, to add insult to injury, the are continually exposured to a myriad of insecticides and pesticides. The belief is that all of these factors combined create enormous stress on commercial hive activity.
Now add the wild bees. Yep, they're disappearing too. Scientists at University of Leeds compared a million records on bees from hundreds of sites in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands before and after 1980. They found that bee diversity has declined nearly 80 percent at tested sites. In the southern Indian state of Karnataka, once a major honey producer, up to 90% of the indigenous bee colonies were destroyed by an imported virus in the early 1990s. In Rimouski, Quebec, the bee populations have also been decimated. In Iraq, the toxic effects of the Gulf War (smoke due to burning oil wells) that have destroyed 90% of the bee colonies.
From malformations, nervous system problems and disorientation to behavioural problems, bees are manifesting all sorts of symptoms that reveal a fragile state of health. Some bees cannot find their way back to their hive after leaving it. Others are rejected when they return because they are not recognized by the rest of the group.
The new insecticides introduced in the 1980s are neurotoxins which are spread when crops are sown (sunflower, soy, etc.) and serve to protect them against their various predators. Studies are showing that the toxic chemicals remain on the plant throughout its growth cycle right through the flowering period. The nectar eaten by bees also contains chemical residues that are deeply harmful to them. Hence, honey production has dropped by a third generally, and by up to 90% in some areas.
Our urban foot has also taken a terrible toll on a honeybee's natural state. Pollinators work on a limited range of flowers. But they have to fly further and further afield to gather the pollen because their supportive environment is disappearing. This has a disastrous effect on honeybees in particular. While most pollinators pick up fertilizing spores accidentally while trolling flowers for nectar, honeybees collect pollen to feed their young.
The Domino Effect
But what the Leeds study goes on to say is even more disturbing. It turns out the decline in bees is linked to a decline in plant diversity. Where bee diversity has decreased, so too have the wildflowers that require specific insects for pollination. The phenomena, called the domino effect, triggers a chain reaction disrupting the interrelation of animals and plants. In short, the decline in honeybees could be triggering a cascade of local extinctions.
The Domino Theory became reality in Yellowstone Park in the 1920s. Apparently, the wolves were trying to tell us something too. In 1914, the United States Congress approved funding to destroy the wolves in the park and surrounding areas to help ranchers protect their livestock. The wolves were systematically killed- the last known wolf pack disappeared in 1926. Sixty years later the Gray Wolf was listed as endangered.
But what happened in the regions where the wolves disappeared shocked everyone. The forests went quiet. The systematic removal of wolves tipped the domino effect. Over the following decades, adverse changes occurred in the park that scientists couldn't explain including the disappearance of songbirds. They ultimately discovered wolves effect elk, elk affect aspen and willows, aspens/willows affect beavers and beavers affect trout and songbirds.
The scientists at Oregon University analyzed subsequent data to show a clear and remarkable linkage between the presence of wolves and the health of an entire streamside ecosystem, including two species of cottonwoods and the important roles they play in soil erosion control, stream health, and nurturing diverse plant and animal life.
Given this evidence, it is perfectly logical to assume the disappearance of bees could very likely damage the prospects of associated species. Perhaps that's the most sobering of all because in the environmental game of domino humanity is the last tile.
Yet Another Extinction?
As our self-sufficiency declines and our material consumption rises, we are taking a direct hit to our future wellbeing. We have a long history of continually changing the environment to suit us, literally pushing out other lifeforms. And while we are sadden by yet another story of species extinction, previous to the bees disappearing, we haven't been directly affected. But this time, we are destroying a social structure that is essential to our own.
But the strangest part of the missing bee mystery is by far the most interesting. There are no dead bees. There are a few dead soldiers scattered on the ground, but we're talking millions and millions of bees here. They're not in the hive, at the hive, or close by. Many abandoned hives full of honey. So where did they go? Perhaps the honeybees had enough of our interference. Perhaps they know where we're headed and just prefer to fly away.