We have friends, Donna and Mike Lewis, who own about 100 acres near Blanket. In a recent discussion about the plentiful wild flowers in our part of the state this year, Mike made the observation that on his place he has noticed that only about a third of the bluebonnets appear to have been pollinated. The phenomenon is not just happening in Blanket, but across the state, as well as other parts of the country.
Something is happening to the bees. Randy Johnson, owner of Johnson Honey & Bee Co. near Paris, Texas, told the Star-Telegram he started seeing problems with his hives last fall. The worker bees would disappear, then the queen and the rest would die off, leaving combs full of honey and no clue about what happened. He has lost about 1,000 of the 1,500 honeybee colonies he had in his operation and nobody seems to know why. According to the Star-Telegram report, it is a scene being played out in farms, fields and orchards spread across 24 states, Canada and several countries in Europe. About a quarter of U.S. honeybees are already dead from the mysterious cause the scientists have named “colony collapse disorder.”
One may or may not be a fan of honey, but even though in the U. S. bees produce about $200 million worth of it each year, the problem is significantly larger. According to the U. S. Department of Agriculture, bees fertilize $15 billion in crops annually. The vital role that honeybees play pollinating commercial agriculture is underappreciated by most Americans. The impact could ripple because an estimated 80 to 90 crops rely on commercial honeybee pollination. Paul Jackson, head of the Texas Apiary Inspection Service, said “without bees, we don’t eat.”
Several years ago, I was doing research for a feature story on the Clark Gardens near Mineral Wells. Just inside the gates, I interviewed a beekeeper who was smoking his bees and gathering his hives. It was in the fall and he explained he was moving his colonies down to south Texas for the winter. I was fascinated watching him, but was also na•ve about the process. I assumed he was moving them so that they would be warm. Actually, I learned most commercial beekeepers are paid to ship their colonies to areas where plants and trees are blooming to fertilize them. In California, for instance, where 80 percent of the world’s almonds grow, and where the native honeybee population is only about 400,000 hives, almost half of the hives in the country arrive in February to pollinate the blooming almond trees. Because of the shortage of bees this year the fees charged for imported hives tripled, from $50 per hive to $150.
Honeybee populations have experienced declines in the past by mites and pesticides. However, Maryann Frazer, a Pennsylvania State University researcher studying “colony collapse disorder,” said what is so unique this time is it is happening to very strong colonies. They are just leaving and lots of brood (eggs, larvae, and pupae) and food sources are left behind. Also perplexing is the significant delay in the invasion of pests that usually follows the death of a colony. Frazer said the fact that wax worm moths and hive beetles don’t want the abandoned honey suggests the presence of a deterrent chemical or toxin may be in the hive. They are finding many interesting things in the CCD hives which is easy Frazer said, but to link them to a cause is more problematic.
The theories floating around for the source of the random and devastating disappearance of the honeybees range from the predictable to the bizarre. A former EPA analyst is convinced that what we are witnessing is not a syndrome or disorder, but a result of decades of agribusiness warfare against nature and inevitably, honeybees. E. G. Vallianatos specifically identifies the nerve gas parathion which was licensed by the EPA in 1974. It utilizes time-release technology where the insecticide remains on the surface of the flower in a microscopic bubble and continuously releases over several days. Far removed from the insecticide causative track, a small German study linked cell phone signals to interference with honeybee navigation systems.
A tremendous amount of resources are being brought to bear on the CCD problem. Universities, state agriculture departments and researchers have joined the USDA in working on why the bees are disappearing. An answer will not come too soon for one group — the nation’s beekeepers.
Robert Brincefield is publisher of the Brownwood Bulletin. His column appears on Sunday. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.