Albert Einstein reportedly said, "If the bees should die, humankind would have but four more years to live." So key is the honeybee in pollination that its extinction would severely disrupt the food chain. Could Colony Collapse Disorder—the recent massive die-off of entire bee colonies—be an eerie harbinger of Einstein's prophecy?
The U.S. honeybee population has been steadily declining for the last 30 years, as a result of urbanization, parasites and other factors. But late last year, bee deaths reached new highs. "Over the winter, there was an overall 30 percent loss in the U.S. bee population," said Dennis vanEngelsdorp, acting state apiarist with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. In some areas, beekeepers have lost more than 90 percent of their stock. So severe is the problem that the first in a series of congressional subcommittee hearings were convened last week to address the issue.
"What makes Colony Collapse Disorder stand out from the general decline in the bee population is that the colony simply disappears," said vanEngelsdorp. "We aren't finding dead bees in and around the colony, as we do when there's a parasite or virus. One week the colony is strong, with lots of bees. A week later they're gone."
The exact reasons for CCD aren't clear, but some theories include chemical residues, pesticides, pathogens, parasites and fitness of the bees. "We don't know if it has a single cause, or if it's some kind of cumulative effect of stress," said Jerry Bromenshenk, research professor at the University of Montana and CEO of Bee Alert Technology, Inc. "Most commercially raised bees are shipped cross-country year round to pollinate crops in different regions. When you load bees on a semi and start hauling them across the United States, it's pretty stressful on them."
Some fear that genetically modified crops are killing the bees. According to a recent article in the German journal Der Spiegel, Walter Haefeker, who sits on the board of directors of the German Beekeepers Association, speculates that GM crops may be involved, citing data that he said shows a connection between genetic engineering and diseases in bees. But according to Dewey Caron, Ph.D., professor of entomology and wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware, "It's extremely unlikely that GM crops are to blame. The major pesticide engineered into corn is Bt, which has no toxicity to bees."
What's more clear are the potential consequences of CCD on food production. About a third of the fruits, vegetables and nuts grown in the United States depend on honeybees; the net value of this produce to the U.S. economy is about $14.6 billion per year. A continued shortage of bees would have a dramatic impact on the U.S. food supply.
"We don't have enough bees in the county to adequately pollinate crops," said Jim Boyd, vice-president of the Northern Colorado Beekeepers Association. " And without pollination by bees, it's no longer economical to raise certain crops—for example, almonds. Many beekeepers are going out of business. If this continues, we won't find food as affordable or diverse, and quality and quantity will suffer." And unless the cause of colony collapse is discovered and halted, it could continue—with potentially dire consequences.