While scrambling through the dry scrub just beyond the broken walls of the ball courts, temples and palaces of the ancient ruins of Monte Albán, a low buzz drew my attention to the crest of a small hill in front of us. As I glanced up, a few insects darted through the air several yards away. Then, in a movement both swift and coordinated, a tight, dark mass of thousands of insects ascended from beyond the hill and hung in the air before us, bobbing gently in the warm breeze. It was like the moment in a space opera when our heroes are first surveyed by the Mysterious Alien of Great Intellect and Unknown Intent.
“Um, run?” my professor said softly, and then all four of us were tearing down the hill, back toward the center of the shattered Zapotec metropolis. I paused just long enoughto grab at my hat as it blew off.
I’m no entomologist. Most of my encounters with bees and wasps have involved me getting out of the area in a hurry, without taking the time to get a good look at the insects in question. So I really can’t tell you with any certainty what species was hanging in the air before us there in Monte Albán. From what I’ve learned in the years since, however,I think it likely that those insects were a swarm of honeybees, looking for a new place to call home. If so, that menacing cloud that seemed ready to bear down upon us was at its gentlest, less prone to sting than at any other point in its life.
I’ve been reading a lot about bees recently, and for good reason. Rather than fleeing them, I’m planning to bring some into my own yard. By the time you read this, I should have a hive full of Carniolan Honeybees gracing my garden and flowerbeds. As of this writing however, I’m still scrambling to finish building their hive, an uncomplicated if still challenging project for so unsophisticated a carpenter as myself. I’ve been doing as much research as I can to ensure that I provide the soon-to arrivebees a space to survive and thrive, and I’m learning that I’ll have to surrender many pretensions of control. The colony will have its own imperatives, and many of its activities will be outside of my ability to monitor or affect.
A honeybee colony is made up of three divisions of bees, a single queen, a few drones, and workers numbering in the many thousands. But despite the vast number of bees in a given colony, it is almost misleading to think of them in terms of individual bees. Instead, most beekeepers think of the colony itself as a “superorganism,” with individual bees analogous to the organs or cells of other organisms. Survival of individual bees is unimportant – indeed, workers will unhesitatingly sting if they detect a threat to the colony, though it inevitably means their death – so long as the colony survives. Queens are not, as their name suggests, the rulers of the hive, but merely ambulant ovipositors, the female sex organs of the colony. Similarly, drones are essentially flying packets of sperm. Both drones and queens are critical to the health and persistence of the colony and its genetic legacy, but their roles are exclusively reproductive.
Workers, however, comprise the main body of the colony, and they are fascinating. It is among the masses of workers that the sentience of the colony emerges from the apparently unintelligent individual bees, a phenomenon known as the “hive mind.” Workers communicate via pheromones and, amazingly, “waggledances,” where they convey the precise locations of food sources, sometimes miles distant.
Matt Reed, founder of Bee Thinking, a hive builder and pollination service in Clackamas County, likes to recall the event that inspired his interest in bees: One morning he found a honeybee, apparently near death, on his windowsill. When he placed some honey near it, it immediately perked up and began consuming the honey. When it had recovered, Reed carried it to the front door and let it out of his apartment. As he was leaving for work some time later, he opened the door to find several bees flying desperately against the screen, trying to get at the honey they knew was inside. That a hive can be informed of a food source by means of dance is a phenomenon explained precisely by science, but it is no less fascinating for the mathematics involved.
Honeybees are not native to the Americas. The species Apis mellifera originates in Europe and western Asia. A similar species, A. cerana, is tended by beekeepers in East Asia. The introduction of the honeybee to North America by early European settlers seems to contradict the popular narrative of non-native species as harmful threats to local biodiversity. Honeybees are critical to the pollination of many introduced Eurasian crops, but also pollinate many native plants, without competing with native pollinators like bumblebees. As far as most plants are concerned, the more pollinators – and the more diverse the pollinators – the better. While our primary association with bees may be honey, most bees today are kept primarily for pollination services, with hives trucked around the country following the blooming schedule of each crop. Perhaps a third of the food we eat is dependent in some measure on honeybees for pollination. The EPA estimates pollinators provide a value of some $6 billion annually to the US economy, and California almond growers are willing to pay as much as $200 rent per hive during the critical pollination season.
The demands placed on honeybees by modern agriculture may be too costly to the bees, however. In late 2006, news began hitting the headlines of a mysterious and precipitous decline in honeybee populations across the US South and Midwest. Hives would be suddenly abandoned. In some cases, a few workers, apparently disoriented and confused, would linger around the hive for a brief period before dying. Honeybees had been hit hard by new parasites and fungal diseases in the past, but in this case, there was no immediately obvious cause for the decline, so it was simply dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
Since 2006, researchers have been struggling to explain CCD, so far with only limited success. Hive losses remained high, with 29% of US colonies dying in 2009, and 34% in 2010. Suggestions ranged from new diseases to cell phone tower radiation to pesticide use. The USDA announced in 2010 that collapsed colonies had high levels of fungal and viral diseases, but that finding did not explain why bees were suddenly more susceptible to these diseases. The USDA’s 2010 progress report states that “reports have noted the high number of viruses and other pathogens, pesticides, and parasites present in CCD colonies, and lower levels in non-CCD colonies. This work suggests that a combination of environmental stressors may set off a cascade of events and contribute to a colony where weakened worker bees are more susceptible to pests and pathogens.” But is CCD really so mysterious, its causes so general as “a combination of stressors?”
It turns out that CCD itself isn’t really such a new phenomenon. In the mid-1990s, a very similar outbreak was noticed by beekeepers in France, specifically around fields treated with the neonicotinoid insecticide imidacloprid (aka Prothor, Turfthor, Merit, Marathon,Grub-ex, Imicide). After beekeepers launched protests inParis in 1999, use of imidacloprid on the sunflower crop was suspended … and the outbreak largely disappeared. Of course, that didn’t stop Bayer CropScience from suing a leader of the French Beekeepers Association for disparagement of imidacloprid.
In 2008, Germany suspended the use of neonicotinoids in many applications, resulting in fewer bee losses. In 2009, Italy stopped the use of neonicotinoids in the corn planting. For the first time since 1999, no widespread reports of bee losses were reported from around the crop. Charles Benbrook, the chief scientist for The Organic Center, noted at February’s Organicology conference in Portland that while nothing has been definitively proven, the hypothesis that best fits the evidence is that neonicotinoids are strongly implicated in bee die-offs like CCD, and the European experience speaks strongly in favor of that hypothesis. Neonicotinoids, Benbrook explains, are frequently applied as a seed treatment. As the seed sprouts and grows into a mature plant, it exudes traces of the insecticide through the leaves in tiny dewlike sap droplets – a process called guttation. As it turns out, this guttation water is a favored water source for honeybees. Vincenzo Girolami, a researcher at the University of Padova in Italy, found that neonicotinoid concentrations in guttation water can be as a high as 10-100 parts per million, far higher than a bee’s lethal dose of 150 parts per billion.
The solution to CCD might be as simple as banning neonicotinoid insecticides. Or it might not. There is an easy way to tell: suspend the usage of neonicotinoids in a test region, such as California or Florida, for a significantly lengthy period, and track bee losses before, during, and after. If colony collapses stop or decline, you have a convincing case that neonicotinoids are responsible. Unfortunately, lawmakers – lobbied heavily by such chemical companies as Bayer – have thus far proved unsympathetic to such a suspension.
In any case, the possible connection between CCDand neonicotinoids is one more reason to support organic agriculture. Organic practices increasingly prove essential for health, whether our personal health, that of broader ecosystems, or that of bees.