Be grateful for bees

Sasha Ilnyckyj

My favourite reading snack these days is soy-covered almonds. They have lots of delicious umami flavour. Recently, I was surprised to learn that 80% of the world’s almonds are grown in a 600,000-acre section of California’s Central Valley. Since almonds need to be pollinated by honey bees (apini apis) and there is only nectar available in that area when almonds are in bloom, the bees need to be trucked in from elsewhere. Every February, more than a million hives – containing 40,000 bees – get trucked in. By 2005, it proved necessary to import a 747 full of bees from Australia for the ‘pollination event.’

The mutual exposure of those two distantly separated bee populations results in the exchange of microbes and parasites. Therein may lie the cause of the North American Colony Collapse Disorder outbreak that began in 2006. Honey bees are also used to pollinate peaches, soybeans, apples, pears, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, watermelons, cantaloupes, cucumbers and strawberries. There are dozens of others, ranging from those that simply benefit from the availability of pollinating bees to those (such as squash and vanilla) where the bees are absolutely indispensable.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

12 thoughts on “Be grateful for bees”

  1. I think I know where some of the bees have gone:

    Bees and Bombs

    …University of Montana researchers in Missoula have trained honeybees (Apis mellifera) as an efficient and low-cost means to screen large areas for hidden explosives.

    The researchers note that most landmines and buried unexploded ordnance (UXO) leak explosives into the environment. During their tests, honeybees swarmed areas where explosive residue was present.

    The insects had a 98 percent success rate in tests performed last year. Researchers said the location of the residue can be mapped to provide a picture of the extent, location, and density of bomb-contaminated areas.

    “The beauty of this approach is that bees are indigenous to every climate on Earth, and there are beekeepers everywhere,” said Susan Bender, a chemist at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who worked on the project.

    “You wouldn’t need a million-dollar piece of equipment and extensive training to use it,” she said. “The countries where landmines are a problem typically don’t have those kinds of resources.”

    A hive of 40,000 to 65,000 bees costs around U.S. $100 and can be trained in as little as two hours, according to researchers. Now funding is needed to go to the next step, Bender said, so tests in a real mine field can be conducted.

    Bee colonies can also signal other environmental anomalies, including chemical weapons attack, through electronic counters that monitor the number of bees exiting and entering a hive. Unusual activity signals environmental change.

    Samples collected from hives, like wax, honey, and pollen, can also highlight environmental contaminants in an area.

    Training bees is similar to training dogs. Bees are conditioned to associate an odor, such as the explosive materials TNT, DNT, and RDX, with a reward. In practice sessions, a sugar-water feeder and traces of explosives are set up near a colony. As the bees feed, they begin to associate the explosive’s odor with the food source.

    As foragers, the bees will search an area for similar odors and continue to look for hours, or even days, with appropriate reinforcement.

    Bees also train each other. For example, if multiple hives are needed in a large area, only one needs to be trained. Researchers say the bees from the trained hive will naturally recruit and teach others.

  2. This year, bees started disappearing, and nobody could figure out why. If so-called “colony collapse disorder” doesn’t freak you out, you aren’t paying attention: every fruit, nut, and vegetable you’ve ever eaten traces its origin back to a little bee’s tentacles. Is it a coincidence that small-scale, organic-minded beekeepers had better luck? Food writer extraordinaire Michael Pollan doesn’t think so. When he Pollanated the story for The New York Times (ha ha! we know!), he pointed out that the bee disappearance is just one manifestation of the increasing industrialization of the food system. There will be others. [Ominous music swells.]

  3. U.S. honey bee deaths up over last year


    The Associated Press

    May 7, 2008 at 9:41 AM EDT

    SAN FRANCISCO — A survey of bee health released Tuesday revealed a grim picture, with 36.1 per cent of commercially managed hives in the United States lost since last year.

    Last year’s survey commissioned by the Apiary Inspectors of America found losses of about 32 per cent.

    As beekeepers travel with their hives this spring to pollinate crops, it is clear the insects are buckling under the weight of new diseases, pesticide drift and old enemies such as the parasitic varroa mite, said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, president of the group.

  4. Forget climate change – the bees are buzzing off
    August 14, 2008 | Features

    If bees became extinct today, mankind would follow suit in 2012. Albert Einstein proclaimed this insect the most important factor in our food chain. As their numbers dwindle, BOB MADDOX believes we must refocus our attentions and save the humble bumble bee

  5. No way to bee
    EPA knuckleheads hide info on pesticide implicated in colony collapse disorder

    So there’s this insecticide called clothianidin that seems likely to be implicated in colony collapse disorder. By the EPA’s own reckoning [PDF], clothianidin “has the potential for toxic chronic exposure to honeybees, as well as other nontarget pollinators, through the translocation of clothianidin residues in nectar and pollen.” Over in Germany, the introduction of clothianidin coincided with a sudden bee die-off, so German authorities recently banned it. They reckoned that giving clothianidin a rest would provide researchers time to look deeper into it without further endangering bees. (France did the same thing with a related pesticide.)

    Our own EPA must be preparing to do something similar, right? Well, no. That’s not how our EPA works. Rather than banning clothianidin, EPA bureaucrats have busied themselves hiding information about clothianidin.

  6. Iron Age beekeeping discovered

    By David Pescovitz

    Researchers have found evidence of a 3,000 year old beekeeping operation in northern Israel. The apiary, consisting of somewhere between 75 and 200 beehives, contains the oldest human-made beehives ever found.

  7. Scientists Isolate and Treat Parasite Causing Decline in Honey Bee Population

    In a recent report, a team of scientists from Spain claims to have isolated and treated the parasite causing honey bee depopulation syndrome. Their hope is to prevent the continued decline of honey bee populations in Europe and the US. “The loss of honey bees could have an enormous horticultural and economic impact worldwide. Honeybees are important pollinators of crops, fruit and wild flowers and are indispensable for a sustainable and profitable agriculture as well as for the maintenance of the non-agricultural ecosystem. Honeybees are attacked by numerous pathogens including viruses, bacteria, fungi and parasites.”

  8. ‘No proof’ of bee killer theory

    By Matt McGrath
    Science reporter, BBC World Service

    Scientists say there is no proof that a mysterious disease blamed for the deaths of billions of bees actually exists.

    For five years, increasing numbers of unexplained bee deaths have been reported worldwide, with US commercial beekeepers suffering the most.

    The term Colony Collapse Disorder was coined to describe the illness.

    But many experts now believe that the term is misleading and there is no single, new ailment killing the bees.

  9. Almond pollination in California

    Vitamin Bee
    A new attempt to save the most vital workers in the orchards
    Mar 4th 2010 | LOS ANGELES | From The Economist print edition

    More than 80% of the world’s almonds are grown in California and, to pollinate them, the 7,000 or so growers hire about 1.4m of America’s 2.3m commercial hives. Thousands of trucks deliver the hives in February—from Maine, Florida, the Carolinas and elsewhere—and will soon pick them up again. The bees’ job is to flit from one blossom to the next, gorging themselves and in the process spreading the trees’ sexual dust.

    Since 2006, however, bees have been suffering from “colony collapse disorder” (CCD), a mysterious affliction that has drastically reduced their numbers. As a result, says Joe MacIlvaine, the president of Paramount Farming and the largest almond-grower in the world, the rental cost of a hive has tripled in the past five years to about $150. Bee rental now accounts for 15% of Paramount’s costs.

    So Paramount has hired Mr Wardell, who has been studying bees for 30 years and CCD since it broke out. Its cause may be mobile-telephony radiation, viruses, fungi, mites and pesticides—or none of the above. In the absence of a clear explanation, Mr Wardell is concentrating on something different: nutrition.

    A healthy worker bee spends about four weeks in its hive, feeding on protein-rich pollen and nursing larvae, and then another two weeks in the field eating sugary honey until its proteins are depleted and it dies. For some reason bees are getting too little protein in the hive, thus dying after only about four weeks, almost as soon as they venture outside. So Mr Wardell is force-feeding them protein. He owns a patent for MegaBee, which he says “looks like cookie dough”. He puts a bit of this into the hives, blocking the bees’ entrance so that they have to chomp their way through it. As part of his new job, Mr Wardell is working with beekeepers across the country to supplement bee diets everywhere.

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