Why the disappearance of the honeybees isn't the end of the world.

The state of the universe.
July 13 2007 3:55 PM

Bee Not Afraid

The disappearance of the honeybees isn't the end of the world.

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So what brought on this recent scourge of colony collapse disorder? Early news reports on CCD listed a plethora of suspects: pesticides, parasites, global warming, chilly larvae, ultraviolet light, not enough pollen, not enough rain, cell phones, and alien spaceships. Given the present state of the honeybee, any or all of these could have been the culprit. (Well, except for the cell phones and spaceships.)

It's even possible the mystery disease has already shown up in years past. An 1897 issue of Bee Culture magazine mentions the symptoms of something that sounds remarkably like CCD, as do a few case studies from the '60s and '70s. Before bees fell victim to varroa and the ensuing stresses of modern life, these afflictions would have been easy to bounce back from. Today, the same causal agent could have more serious effects.

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But is CCD such a tragedy? The honeybee may be the only insect ever extended charismatic megafauna status, but it's already gone from the wild (and it wasn't even native to North America to begin with). Sure, it makes honey, but we already get most of that from overseas. What about the $14.6 billion in "free labor"? It's more expensive than ever: In the last three years, the cost to rent a hive during the California almond bloom has tripled, from $50 to $150.

Good thing the honeybee isn't the only insect that can pollinate our crops. In the last decade, research labs have gotten serious about cultivating other insects for mass pollination. They aren't at the point yet where they can provide all of the country's pollination needs, but they're getting there. This year the California Almond Board two-timed the honeybee with Osmia lignaria—the blue-orchard bee: Despite CCD, they had a record harvest. *

But these newly domesticated species are likely to follow in the tiny footsteps of the honeybee, if they're treated the same way. Varroa mites have already been found on bumblebees, though for the time being they seem not to be able to reproduce without honeybee hosts. And bumblebees used in greenhouse pollination have escaped on several occasions to spread novel, antibiotic-resistant diseases to their wild counterparts. If things keep going like this, we may soon be blaming spaceships all over again.

Correction, July 18, 2007: The original version misspelled the scientific name of the blue-orchard bee. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Heather Smith (e-mail) is a writer living in San Francisco.