Declining bee numbers: we know not what we do


 “The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy,
a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great
speed, but at its end lies disaster” (Rachel Carson)

 It was ecologist Rachel Carson who put environmental awareness on the radar screen with her sobering classic, Silent Spring (1962), drawing the attention of President John F. Kennedy in its precise detailing of the havoc posed by toxic spraying on wildlife and ultimate danger to ourselves:  “It is ironic to think that man might determine his own future by something so seemingly trivial as the choice of an insect spray.”

Decades later, we seem to have tossed her warning aside.  For example, there was the recent killing of thousands of bumblebees in Wilsonville, OR.  Man-made, it shouldn’t have occurred.  Investigation showed that flowering trees adjacent to a Target store had been sprayed with the pesticide, Dinoteferan (trade name Safari) to control aphids.  It isn’t supposed to be applied to flowering trees.  According to the Xerces Society for Invertebrae Conservation, the incident is being taken seriously and the trees will be covered with nets next year to prevent access to bumblebees and other pollinators.  I ask, Why spray at all?  If you don’t like getting the sticky aphid residue on your car, then don’t park under a tree.

Perhaps the worst of spray induced bee killing occurred on September 11, 2011, when an estimated 12 million bees died within 24-hours following aerial spraying to combat mosquitos in Brevard County, Florida.  Again, is it worth it?

As is, the plight of bees is worldwide, threatening our food supply.  Since 2005, Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has wreaked havoc on bees, largely through the  widespread use of neonicotinoids.  In the U.S., genetically produced corn is sprayed with neonicotinoids, with residues found even in adjacent fields.  Two recent studies show possible effects on short and long term bee memory, resulting in bees not returning to their hives, the tell-tale sign of CCD.

In Europe, neonicotinoids have now been recently banned for two years by the European Union to stem a decline in bee colonies.  We know they are devastating to amphibians and bat populations as well, which have also experienced sharp population declines.

The plight of honey bees goes beyond spraying, however, with extensive mite and viral infestation occurring.  As of yet, we haven’t found a remedy.

I know people who are horrified of bees and will resort to canned sprays.  Me, I’m a gardener and I’ve put countless hours in my garden working side-by- side with bees without consequence.  I respect them and give them room.  I know their preferred hours as busy laborers as well.

I confess I used to resort to sprays often, especially to control fungus and summer’s ubiquitous Japanese beetles in my rose garden.  I know better now and use nothing more than soaps, if anything at all.  I am considering replacing my roses with more tolerant, bee friendly plants like hydrangeas.

Spraying can kill birds as well as bees, by the way, and long term, increases the risk of cancer in human beings.  As is, nearly all of us have toxic residues from years of exposure to chemical substances, many of them sprays.  Again, Carson has warned us that we continue at our own peril: “A Who’s Who of pesticides is therefore of concern to us all. If we are going to live so intimately with these chemicals eating and drinking them, taking them into the very marrow of our bones – we had better know something about their nature and their power.”

But back to bees per se.  What would a world without them be like?  Last week, my wife and I were in northern California, driving through vast groves of almond trees adjacent to both sides of the highway, neatly geometric phalanxes of greenery stretching as far as the eye can see.  Sadly, their vastness may fade into memory like the omnipresent American elm of my New England boyhood that graced our commons.  These almond orchids, spread across 800,000 acres, are in trouble.  Dependent on bees for pollination, last winter saw a decline of up to 50% in hives.

To keep things going, these groves require up to 1.6 million domestic bees annually, resulting in emergency importing of bees.  With bee declines elsewhere, the future is problematical.  Almonds are critical to California’s troubled economy, constituting its largest agricultural export, and its demise would be devastating.

Worldwide, some 100 crops require insect pollination.  Given the earth’s burgeoning population, fewer bees could mean famine for many and inflated food prices.  Meanwhile, in the U.S., neonicotinoids continue to be used widely, particularly on vegetable and fruit crops.  Ironically, they were developed as a safer alternative to pesticides like DDT.  Unfortunately, their danger goes beyond spraying, since they’re systemic, or incorporated into the growing plant.

Like global warming, the threat of declining insect pollinators may seem benign, or far off in its consequences, lulling us into denial or indifference.  The reality is that, again like global warming, the effects of declining bee populations are exponentially happening now.  Incidents like those in Oregon and Florida only make matter worse.  We are intricately linked with all earth’s creatures and their demise hastens our own.


Author: RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.

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