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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When the honeybees disappeared this winter, the thought of losing such a fuzzy and adorable animal inspired dismay. The fact that bees might also be useful drove us to despair. The first official reports of "colony collapse disorder" began to surface in October of 2006; seven months later, USDA officials were calling CCD "the biggest general threat to our food supply," and newspaper columnists nervously joked about the impending "bloody wars not for oil or land or God but over asparagus and avocados." Experts pointed to the $14.6 billion worth of free labor honeybees provide every year, pollinating our crops. With a full quarter of them AWOL, presumed dead, who would make sweet love to the $1.6 billion California almond harvest? More precisely, who would help the almond harvest make sweet love to itself?

Few people realized that the honeybee apocalypse was already over. We may continue to associate them with childhood sugar rushes and chubby-cheeked fertility metaphors, but in real life honeybees have been virtually extinct in North America for more than 10 years, their absence concealed by a rogue's gallery of look-alikes. The stragglers have been kept alive only by the continued ministrations of the agricultural giga-industry that needs them.

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It used to be that it was hard to eat a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich without a honeybee showing up and doing a little dance around your head. Hives (literally) grew on trees until 1987, when a mite called Varroa destructor turned up in a honeybee colony in Wisconsin. Even for a parasite, varroa is less than charming. It looks like a microscopic baked bean, with sharp fangs used to slurp tiny droplets of blood from the abdomens of unsuspecting honeybees. Since these bites also transmit disease, like deformed wing virus and acute bee paralysis virus, an infested colony is kaput within four years. By 1994, an estimated 98 percent of the wild, free-range honeybees in the United States were gone. The number of managed colonies—those maintained by beekeepers—dropped by half.

The honeybees may have been especially vulnerable to the varroa epidemic. When the honeybee genome was sequenced a few years ago, researchers discovered fewer immune-system genes than you'd find in other insects. This despite the fact that the honeybee lives in tenementlike conditions, anywhere between 15,000 and 30,000 of them crammed into a hive the size of a filing cabinet. To make matters worse, a weakened hive often becomes the target of honey-raiders from healthier colonies, which only helps the parasites to spread.

It's possible that if the American honeybees had been left to their own devices, they would have died off in epic numbers and then evolved natural defenses against varroa (like more effective grooming), as they did in Asia. But crops had to be pollinated and no one had the time to sit around and wait.

Beekeepers opted to keep their colonies on life support with selective breeding, and by sprinkling them with medicine and insecticides aimed at the invading mites. This was no longer a hobby for amateurs. The only honeybees left—i.e., the ones that started disappearing in October—had become the cows of the insect world: virtually extinct in the wild, hopped up on antibiotics, and more likely to reproduce via artificial insemination than by their own recognizance.

If anything, it's impressive that the honeybee has hung on in America for as long as it has. The commercial hives spend half the year sealed and stacked in the back of 18-wheelers, as they're schlepped down miles of interstate to pollinate crops around the country. During this time, they get pumped up with high fructose corn syrup, which keeps the bees buzzing and lively, but it's no pollen. And if a bee happens to get sick on the road, it can't self-quarantine by flying away from the colony to die. (In the wild, a bee rarely dies in the hive.) Add to the above the reduced genetic diversity resulting from the die-offs in the 1990s, and you have an insect living in a very precarious situation—where a new pathogen, even a mild one, could spell honeybee doom.

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.

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.

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