Crucial links in food chain are dying in record numbers
By Esther Krenz Muller
Special to The Daily Star Tuesday, June 03, 2008
BEIRUT: Many people think of bees as just another flying pest, but they are essential to modern civilization’s ability to feed itself – and they are dying in unsettling numbers.
“Since 2005, Lebanon’s estimated 10,000 beekeepers have lost roughly one quarter of their 4 billion bees,” Wadih Yazbek, manager of Yazbek Honey Est., told The Daily Star.
Billions more are disappearing all over the world, and researchers are scrambling to find answers. American beekeepers have been hardest hit, with one fourth reporting losses between 50 and 90 percent.
Honeybees, known for their famous figure-eight dance that conveys the location of food to other bees, have been sweetening our lives for thousands of years. Bees are intelligent, social insects used commercially to pollinate 100 major crops worldwide – that adds up to one third of humanity’s food supply, according to the US Department of Agriculture.
Since bees are one of humanity’s prime crop pollinators, they are an essential part of the world’s natural and agricultural ecosystems. These stinger-armed insects play an integral role by carrying pollen from male to female parts of flowers.
The bee deaths are a serious threat to cultivating flowering fruits and vegetables like squash, apples, kiwis, cucumbers, melons, avocados, kiwis, grapes, lettuce, onions, strawberries, wild flora and lavender to name a few. As Einstein once opined: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, man would only have four years to live.”
Since 2006 baffled researchers have come up with a term for the mysterious phenomenon – Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). In CCD-stricken hives, the entire adult population of worker bees (with the exception of the queen) flies off in search of pollen and mysteriously never returns to the hive. The bees aren’t emigrating – they simply cannot find their way home due to disorientation and eventually succumb to exhaustion and cold, according to beekeepers and scientists worldwide.
Taking the sting out of the issue won’t be easy. Investigators are looking at an array of theories that may explain CCD as most agree multiple factors are to blame. The most likely causes to date are mites, pesticides, viruses, fungus, and cell phones.
Many experts believe that most CCD deaths can be linked to external parasitic mites – in particular the Asian mite known as Varroa destructor or vampire mite. This tiny circular bug, the size of a pinhead, resembles an eight-legged crab, and is the bees’ natural predator. The dark brown Varroa mite is visible to the naked eye and can only reproduce by feeding on a honey bee colony.
“I’ve seen a lot of cases thought of as certain new diseases in Lebanon, but inspections showed the symptoms to be the result of Varroa infestation, the major challenge to Lebanese beekeeping,” said Rami Ollaik, professor at AUB’s Faculty of Agriculture and Food Sciences.
Like a tic, the mite feeds on the body of the bee by sucking out the blood, known as hymolymph in insects. Simultaneously bees are infected with lethal viruses, like the most common Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus (IAPV) and Deformed Wing Virus (DWV). Symptoms are shivering wing syndrome, paralysis, deformed appendages and ultimately, death.
Researchers at Pennsylvania State University in the US believe that the damage inflicted by the mites severely weakens the bees’ immune system. Bee specialist Dennis Van Engelsdrop, who works with the state of Pennsylvania, argues that the “strong immune suppression observed by investigators could be the AIDS of the bee industry.” It makes bees vulnerable to disease and viruses like the problematic single-celled “fungus” Nosema ceranea.
Dany Obeid of the Lebanese non-governmental organization Programme Environnement DEHO Arcenciel, an insect specialist and beekeeper himself, argues that “most of the problems are caused by the beekeepers themselves because they keep using the same pesticide, which results in resistance.”
Experts are hustling to come up with organic, eco-friendly mite repellents in order to save the bees. Many apiarists – scientists who study bees – in Lebanon and other countries have found success with bee feed mixtures made from spicy spearmint oil, sugar, lemongrass and formic acid (an acidic mixture made from distilled dead ants). When mites try to suck the blood of the bees, they are repelled by the spearmint or acid.
Particularly resourceful beekeepers are even adding grease to this organic, sugary concoction. Bees coat themselves with the oily protective layer as they eat, making it more difficult for the mites to latch on.
There is also some evidence that air pollution and radiation from cellular phones may interfere with bees’ innate and complex navigational abilities. This interference may disorient and confuse the bees, preventing them from finding their way back to the hive.
“The honeybee is a very clean and sensitive insect, closely in touch with its environment and nature,” AUB’s Ollaik explained. “Therefore, electronic signals and air pollution must be linked to CCD.”
Not everyone is convinced. Yazbek considers the theory a “long shot,” and Nizar Haddad, director of the Bee Research Unit at Jordan’s National Center for Agricultural Research, argued that “there is no relation between mobile phones and CCD.”
According to Yazbek, the biggest challenge to the Lebanese bee industry is a lack of government guidance.
“We need training in modern beekeeping techniques, government honey standards, and modern laboratories to test honey,” he told The Daily Star. “The sad reality is, the only government support and assistance our beekeepers receive is an insufficient quantity of high-quality anti-Varroa mite pesticide, and a custom tariff of LL8,000 per kilogram on imported honey that won’t hold forever due to [World Trade Organization] restrictions.
“The trouble with the pesticide assistance is some beekeepers do not get enough, while others get more than their fair share,” he added. “Furthermore, the aid is frequently distributed during the wrong season.”
Ollaik cited “lack of proper pest management, high production costs, poor marketability, and poor breeding programs that rely on imported queens and bees” as the major problems facing the Lebanese bee industry.
“Regrettably, no comprehensive government or university studies are under way to investigate the causes of local bee deaths,” he said. “AUB organized the first national beekeeping conference in 2001 to launch a seven-year strategic plan in the hopes of developing the sector. Unfortunately, politics paralyzed all initiatives.”
Now, he said, “our student research teams are doing their best to catapult the industry from traditional to innovative practices.”