In These New Times

A new paradigm for a post-imperial world

As mystery plague threatens to wipe out bees, scientist reveal: our survival depends on them

Posted by smeddum on June 28, 2008

Daily Mail


Yet another article that downplays the role of electromagnetism,(see our right sidebar). However, the authors stress the danger of the bee’s extinction is to humanity

The mountains of southern Sichuan in China are covered in pear trees.

Every April, they are home to a strange sight: thousands of people holding bamboo sticks with chicken feathers attached to the end, clambering among the blossom-laden branches.

Closer inspection reveals that children, parents and even grandparents are pollinating the trees by hand.

Key to life: Bees pollinate our crops and without them we’d have seriously limited food supplies

It is a ritual they have been following for more than 20 years, ever since pesticides killed their honey bees.

It’s a tough job. The farmers must first collect pollen from the blossoms by scrubbing it off the anthers (the male part of the flowers) into a bowl.

They let it dry for two days, then the whole family come out with their homemade feather dusters, which are dipped in the pollen and applied to the flowers’ stigmas (the female parts).

It is a slow, laborious process and much less efficient than a colony of honeybees, which could visit three million flowers in a day.

But the hand pollination seems to work. In August, the trees are heavy with fruit and each family harvests around 11,000lb of pears.

Impossible to imagine such scenes in Britain, isn’t it? Well, don’t be so sure.

Some experts fear this extraordinary ritual may have to be repeated across the world — because the honeybee population is declining at a truly alarming rate.

So far, a third of all honeybees in America have died and the honeybee population in Europe has been devastated.

Sixty years ago, in England and Wales, there were more than 360,000 hives; now there are just 270,000 across the whole of Britain.

But most perplexing of all is that no one knows why this is happening — and what to do about it. Adult bees have been leaving their hives and not returning, leaving their queen, eggs and larvae to starve to death.

This phenomenon has a suitably modern name — Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) — and theories as to what causes it range from mobile phones interfering with the bees’ navigation systems to pesticide poisoning and exposure to GM crops.

More than a year after scientists began investigating, they are still only following vague leads.

In Britain, the Government denies that CCD has reached our shores and, instead, attributes the heavy loses to varroa mites — the deadly parasites that have been massacring Europe’s bees since 1992.

Like something out of a horror movie, these blood- sucking mites hitch a ride into hives on the backs of unsuspecting bees.

Once inside, the female mites bury themselves at the bottom of the brood cells, feed on the larvae and lay their eggs. These hatch and mate and continue the cycle.

Hive: In the UK alone the honeybee population has fallen from 360,000 to 270,000 in 60 years. Other parts of the world are far worse hit

But the bees that grow from larvae and are attacked by mites have a shorter lifespan, as well as shrunken and deformed wings, and are less resistant to infection. Eventually, the population is wiped out.

But there are other factors at play, too. Changes in agricultural practices mean huge areas of land have been planted with a single crop, and the removal of hedgerows and field margins has robbed wild honeybees of places to nest.

Meanwhile, the abandonment of crop rotation in favour of fertilisers, and the elimination of weeds in these huge fields and pastures, have contributed to a dearth of food for them.

Excessive mowing of embankments, roadsides and public areas also leads to loss of flowers and nesting sites.

So could buzzing on a summer’s day really become a distant memory? Some experts fear the honeybee could be extinct in fewer than 30 years — with catastrophic results.

It is hard to grasp the full horror that would ensue if honeybees did vanish. Most people’s initial response to the idea of a world without bees is ‘That’s a shame — I’ll have no honey to spread on my toast’ or: ‘Good — one bug fewer that can sting me.’

Yet without the insect that pollinates many of the plants we rely on for food, beekeepers warn of an economic and ecological disaster.

Einstein is reputed to have said: ‘If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left. No more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.’

That may seem a rather apocalyptic view, but consider this: some 12 per cent of the earth’s land mass is cultivated for the growing of crops.

Add grazing land, and more than a third of terra firma is dedicated to human food production. How much of that would stay intact if the bees disappeared?

Not the yellow fields of sunflowers or rapeseed stretching to the horizon, nor the fruit-filled orchards whose offerings fill the bowls on our kitchen tables, or the clover-rich pastures and the dairy herds that graze upon them.

Research in America estimates the annual value of the 11 crops most dependent on honeybee pollination at £6billion.

Alfalfa, which is turned into cattle feed, tops the list followed by apples, almonds, cotton, citrus, soya beans, onions, broccoli, carrots, sunflowers, cherries and melons.

How long before these crops shrivel and the landscape turns from fruitful fields to barren wasteland?

Wheat-washed plains, corn-covered prairies and flooded paddy fields would still create a patchwork of agriculture across the surface of the globe, sustained by wind pollination.

But the world would lose its cotton plantations, vegetable beds and orchards.

How would our weekly food shop change? With bees responsible for so much of what we eat, the shopping list would get shorter and become less palatable.

Off would come the honey, followed by fruit, save for bananas (which don’t need pollination) and pineapples (which mostly use hummingbirds), and most vegetables, along with protein-rich beans.

Meat would disappear, too, because bees are needed to pollinate crops grown for cattle and pig feed. And it won’t just be sausages and joints of beef that go: cheese, milk, ice cream and other dairy products could disappear, or become prohibitively expensive.

Bees dramatically increase yields of coffee, so without them supplies would be severely reduced. And where dozens of types of cooking oil used to stand on supermarket shelves, only a couple — walnut and olive — would remain. The fish counter might be stocked — but with fewer sources of protein available, the seas would probably be plundered to the point of exhaustion.

That leaves bread (because plants such as wheat and oats have no need of the mediation of bees for pollination). But what would you spread on it? Rice and pasta would be plentiful, but where would be the ingredients to make a tasty sauce? And let’s hope you could get used to pizza with no cheese topping.

Breakfast would consist of a dry piece of toast, a bowl of porridge made with water, and an egg. No fruit juice to wash it down. You couldn’t even substitute soya milk for cows’ milk, as the soya bean relies on bee pollination.

But it’s not just our diets that would change beyond all recognition if bees were to vanish. We would also have to give up clothes — from T-shirts and jeans to chinos and denim skirts. The cotton plant has far higher yields when pollinated by bees.

Medicines also rely on flowering plants pollinated by bees. Digitalin, a drug that treats irregularities in heart rhythm, comes directly from foxglove flowers; the decongestant ephedrine is from the shrub ephedra; and reserpine, which lowers blood pressure, is made from serpent root.

Chemicals are also extracted from plants and used as buildingblocks to create new compounds. Etoposide and teniposide, which treat skin cancers and warts, for example, are manufactured from epipodophyllotoxin, a chemical found in the mayapple plant.

And don’t forget beeswax — produced by young bees and used to build the honeycomb cells in the hives.

Beeswax has more than 120 industrial uses in drugs, polishes, lubricants and skincare products, where it acts as an emollient, emulsifier and stiffening agent for oils and fats. Some of its more obscure uses include coating the strings on archery bows and waterproofing whips.

Yet if bees vanished tomorrow and with them their wax and bee-dependent plants, wouldn’t we just find alternative ways to feed, clothe and cure ourselves? Paraffin has already superseded beeswax in most applications because it is cheaper and easier to produce, while nylon, rayon and polyester are among the synthetic fibres we could wear.

But imagining that science will somehow come to our rescue shows a spectacular failure to comprehend the scale of the crisis we could face if nature’s master pollinator spiralled into extinction, from the unravelling of the world economy to the collapse of the terrestrial environment.

If bees vanished off the face of the earth, no country would be able to solve food shortages by importing more fruits, vegetables or cattle feed.

An economic meltdown would ensue: food price inflation fuelling interest rate rises and the whole global credit economy, which is already in a parlous state, would suffer a further blow.

Just a basic understanding of food chains explains why the loss of bees would break a natural bond that begins with flowering plants. Without the flowers being pollinated, there would be far fewer seeds, roots, leaves, flowers or fruits for birds and small mammals to eat and they would die. As a result, their predators — the omnivores or carnivores that continue the chain — would starve.

It is a haunting thought, but it is not unknown for civilisations to die of starvation. The downfall of South America’s ancient Mayan culture has been attributed to its inability to grow enough food crops because of environmental damage and population growth.

Deforestation, hillside erosion and the depletion of soil nutrients from overfarming led to a reduction in the amount of usable arable land at a time of a population explosion. Food shortages led to war as Mayans fought each other for diminishing resources.

Is this what the honeybees are telling us? That our industrialised farming with its monocultures, pesticides and increasingly unreasonable demands on the bees themselves is not sustainable?

With their limited resistance to poisons and pollutants, are they the canary in the coalmine warning us that if our lifestyles are killing them, we are not far behind? ¦

Adapted from A World Without Bees by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum, published by guardianbooks at £9.99. © 2008 Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum. To order a copy (p&p free) call 0845 606 4206.

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