Mass Extinction of Bees Will Cause One-Third of Food Supply To Disappear
A third of our food relies on bees for pollination. Both the US and UK report losing a third of their bees last year. Other European countries have seen major die-offs too: Italy, for example, said it lost nearly half its bees last year. The deaths are now spreading to Asia, with reports in India and suspected cases in China.
The common honeybee pollinates 130 different crops within the U.S. alone including fruit, vegetables, and tree nuts to name a few. In the November 2011 issue of Food Technology magazine, published by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), Contributing Editors write that nearly one-third of the U.S. food supply requires the common honeybee to survive.
Known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), this phenomenon has brought beekeepers to crisis in an industry responsible for producing apples, broccoli, watermelon, onions, cherries and a hundred other fruits and vegetables. Commercial honeybee operations pollinate crops that make up one out of every three bites of food on our tables.
Due to genetic modification, different viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites, honeybee colonies in different parts of the world are beginning to dissipate. Without honeybee pollination, some crops like almonds, pumpkins, watermelons, and some other melons would disappear completely, (Gallai et al. 2009). In the absence of the honeybee, ingredients like vanilla spice would require manual pollination that takes additional human labor, time and money.
French and German beekeepers blame their losses on insecticides called neonicotinoids - but France banned them 10 years ago and its bees are still dying. Neumann suspects a wider problem, citing experiments showing that agricultural chemicals that are safe for bees when used alone are lethal in combination. "Farmers increasingly combine sprays," he says. They also leave few flowering weeds, depriving bees of essential nutrients from different kinds of pollen, he adds.
Meanwhile viruses may cause a syndrome dubbed colony collapse disorder (CCD) in the US, in which adult bees abandon their hive, leaving the healthy queen and young bees to die. Diana Cox-Foster of Penn State University in University Park, where the syndrome was first identified, says viruses, including one called IAPV, duplicate the symptoms of CCD in her greenhouse studies. There is no IAPV or CCD in the UK, says Mike Brown of the National Bee Unit, yet bees are still dying.
US scientists have found 121 different pesticides in samples of bees, wax and pollen, lending credence to the notion that pesticides are a key problem. "We believe that some subtle interactions between nutrition, pesticide exposure and other stressors are converging to kill colonies," said Jeffery Pettis, of the ARS's bee research laboratory.
Pettis agreed that losses in some commercial operations are running at 50% or greater. "Continued losses of this magnitude are not economically sustainable for commercial beekeepers," he said, adding that a solution may be years away. "Look at Aids, they have billions in research dollars and a causative agent and still no cure. Research takes time and beehives are complex organisms."