Monday, July 11, 2011

Commercial honeybee colonies continue to die off

A recent Globe and Mail article outlines how honeybee colonies used for farming continue to experience significant mortality rates -- 43% in Ontario in 2010-11.
“These kind of ... results are unsustainable. If any other livestock was suffering this sort of annual mortality, there would be a national outcry.” - Ontario Beekeepers’ Association president John Van Alten
Colony collapse disorder has ravaged North American commercial honeybee populations over the last few years. It is a worrisome trend. Possible interrelated causes for the spike in collapse rates include: pesticides, varroa mites, funguses, insect viruses, genetic deficiencies, pollution, and excessive transportation (which stresses out the hives).

I wonder what opinion Buzz
has on this issue...
I'm fascinated by this particular topic, because it touches on an aspect of our industrial food production chain that most people don't think much about. Namely, that we extensively -- and systematically -- use honeybees to pollinate a huge swathe of our crops.

Large-scale crop pollination isn't accomplished by natural populations of bees and insects anymore -- rather, we actively transport and distribute honeybees to different geographic areas as needed to perform the task. Hives are moved around and worked over a number of different locations during the growing season.

It's an intriguing example of man marshalling the forces of nature for his own uses -- and also of the risks we take when those forces fall out of our control. It's not just honey production that is at stake here; it is the productive capacity of our agricultural system.

It speaks to an overall process which -- on the surface at least -- seems almost unnatural -- where queen bees are a valuable commodity, not just the organic output of a hive's reproductive function.

Some apiarists charge that numerous elements of industrialized beekeeping tend to have problematic side effects, and result in unsustainable systems that ultimately collapse.

The charges deserve consideration:
  • Commercial bee populations tend to have a shallow gene pool, because it's more efficient to produce and breed a uniform, docile type of bee. When diseases emerge, the deleterious impact is much greater, due to the monocultural population.
  • Pesticides and antibiotics are overused to control mite infestations. We therefore inadvertently propagate bees that would otherwise be vulnerable to mites and other parasites. 
  • With deliberate use of artificially large cell foundation sizes, bees are hyperbred for greater size and productivity (larger cell sizes tend to result in physically larger bees) 
  • Other speculation involves the possible negative role of GMO and genetically engineered plants in the food chain 
The combination of these different factors produces commercial colonies at greater risk of collapse than 'natural' colonies, according to this particular perspective.

How can we reconcile this criticism with our ongoing need to reliably produce massive quantities of agricultural crops to feed our cities? Whether you find the arguments valid or not, the mounting death tolls in our commercial honeybee colonies is a matter for serious concern.

Are honeybees the proverbial canary in the coal mine? Do their deaths presage something more ominous? Is our food supply chain at risk? Is our current approach to beekeeping fundamentally flawed?

In our globalized world, the answers are not so clear.

ps. On a lighter note, I did send a quick note to Buzz, the Honeynut Cheerios mascot who is ostensibly 'Defender of the Honey', asking for his* position -- but unfortunately beyond an auto-form reply, I have not yet received any comment...

Update: I did get a response after all this morning, from
"Thank you for contacting our company with your inquiry. The website is a website with games for children to play. It has nothing to do with protecting honey bees. We hope you find this information helpful. Please let us know if we can help you again. 
P. Gordon
Consumer Services"
Zing! Poor P. Gordon. Trapped in a dreary cube somewhere inside General Mills, being forced to solemnly reply to rubbish queries like mine. 1 point awarded for being a good sport.

* technically, shouldn't Buzz be female?