I’ve been following, off and on, the issue with the vanishing bees. Colony Collapse Disorder is a pretty scary thing; while we don’t rely on bees exclusively for our crop pollination needs, they’re still crucial, and if the bees all go away, then things will be mighty tough. I don’t believe we’ll face major famine and extinction, but food will be very expensive, and the human toll will still be frighteningly high. Now, in our own little part of California, a very agricultural area, we don’t seem to have been hit particularly hard by CCD; I still see plenty of bees flying around, doing their bee stuff. The worry is there, but seeing the bees (with whom I’ve always had pretty good relations) around makes me feel a little better.
There seem to be as many different theories about what’s happening to the bees as there are people looking at the problem. The environmentalist wacko/doomsday theorist in me likes the idea that genetically modified crops are to blame. It’s got a good beat, you can dance to it, and you can cast blame at the multi-billion dollar agricultural industry which is so dysfunctional in the United States anyway. And while I do think that there are probably some aspects of the craze for GM crops that haven’t been studied thoroughly enough (if only because no one thinks to test for these things), the truth is that, according to my very few conversations with apiarists and farmers, the effects of most of these crops were pretty heavily tested on pollinating insects. Plus, there have been GM crops in the field a lot longer than CCD has been an issue.
Another fringe theory that I’m less inclined to take seriously suggests that cell phones are to blame. Yes, the signals from cell phones and cell phone towers can confuse bees and other insects and animals that rely on some sophisticated biological machine that we don’t quite get yet to make their way home, but the effect hasn’t been that strong. What’s more, cell phones and cell phone towers have been around for at least a decade, but we’ve only observed CCD this past year. The timelines don’t add up.
So it’s all still a mystery. Major bee die-offs are not that unusual, but die-offs on the scale that we’re seeing now are unprecedented and scary.
Personally, I’m inclined to think that there may be a number of different factors which are contributing to the current problem. Most bees in the agricultural industry are from one species, and whenever you have a large population with a nearly identical genome, you’re just asking for trouble. Genetic variation is a nifty thing; when a new threat enters a genetically diverse population, the odds that someone in that population has a mutant gene that can fight it off and that can then be spread throughout the population rise. But if those genes are missing, then such a threat can’t be fought off. This kind of epidemic spread happens in any sort of ecosystem where the majority of a population has an identical genetic code, literally or metaphorically. New computer viruses that spread havoc throughout the world do so partially because Windows computers are pretty much the same the world over, and if an exploit exists in the source code of the operating system on the computer I’m using, then it very likely exists in yours, and so the same virus can infect both. If I’m running Linux and you’re running Windows, then only one of our computers will be infected.
So, there’s that. I’ve also heard that GM crops can impact the immunological systems of bees; I haven’t been able to confirm that, but it’s an intriguing idea. If it’s true, then this, combined with a lack of variation in the bees’ genetics, leaves them wide open to infection from other pathogens. Researchers at UCSF have identified a fungus that may be the culprit, actually: a single-celled parasite called Nosema ceranae that has been found in many of the bees on which autopsies have been performed. Since I’m not a population geneticist or a mycologist or an entomologist or an ecologist or an insect immunologist or any other sort of ologist, I can’t speak knowledgeably or authoritatively on the issue, but it’s an interesting idea.
One thing that sort of surprises me, though, is that Colony Collapse Disorder hasn’t been linked, in any of the news reports I’ve seen, with the phenomenon of the wasp mega-nests that were being found all throughout the South last year. Seriously, we’re talking huge. Paper wasps were building nests that filled up cars, nests with millions of insects when a nest would normally only contain a couple thousand. These nests had several active queens at once, instead of just one. Can you imagine walking into your barn one spring day to find that your old Chevy Packard has been packed with a monstrous paper wasp nest, and that they’ve been building smaller, "satellite" nests elsewhere in the barn as well? Bees are fine little critters that do good and sting you only if you bug them, but wasps are flat out nuts and some of them will sting you just because they can. And while bees disembowel themselves whenever they sting someone because their stingers are barbed, wasps have smooth stingers and can sting you again and again, and likely will, just because they’re ornery. Doesn’t seem fair that while bees are experiencing a massive die-off, these wasps are having a population explosion.
Why the giant nests? Another mystery, from what I’ve read, but some ecologists suggest that wasps normally experience die offs during the colder winter months which prevent their colonies from getting too massive. But if the winter is too warm, then there’s no die off, and the colony just keeps growing and growing. Others suggest that some of the queens are, for some reason, remaining in their original nests instead of heading out like they normally do to establish colonies of their own. They’re lazy, but instead of killing each other, these queens learn to cooperate and build giant nests.
So, bees are dying off, and wasps are making giant nests. It’s tempting to look for a common explanation. If it really is an environmental factor that’s causing the giant nest phenomenon, then might the same factor have some role to play in the bee die-off? Well, probably not, since the giant nest phenomenon was pretty localized to the American south and Colony Collapse Disorder seems to be turning into a global phenomenon.
Still, it’s fun to speculate.
Update: Thanks to a friend of mine for pointing out this article to me about how cell phone signals apparently got linked with Colony Collapse Disorder. Turns out it was some German researchers who were studying the effect of the radio signals generated by landlines on the learning ability of bees. Nothing to do with cell phones at all, but the media, surprisingly, misinterpreted the research. Imagine that.