If you've been wondering about all the buzz over honeybees, here is some food for thought - or rather some thought about food: Bees play a role in one out of every three bites of food Americans eat.
Pollinators, mainly bees, but also butterflies, songbirds and even bats, perform such a critical function in the food chain that their absence threatens everything from the viability of vast fields of commercial corn and other crops to the tomatoes in your garden. Without the bees and other pollinators, plants can fail to produce the fruits and seeds we eat.
Which is why a San Francisco-based group called the Pollinator Partnership has dedicated itself to the survival of pollinators - from hummingbirds to small mammals to the fragile and busiest pollinators of them all, the bees. Partnership members, along with beekeepers and researchers testified before Congress last week to lobby lawmakers for more funding to research the decline of many pollinators, particularly the loss of millions of bees around the world to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
Oft described as a "mysterious" phenomenon, CCD is increasingly being linked, not so mysteriously, to a new class of potent synthetic nicotine-based pesticides that are used on a wide array of crops. Germany recently banned several pesticides in this category because of their suspected role in the deaths of millions of bees; other experts are raising questions about whether plants treated with neo-nicotinoids are toxic to bees because the plants harbor the pesticide in their nectar and pollen.
Beekeepers, researchers and advocates want the U.S. House Agriculture Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture to help find answers.
"What I asked for at the testimony was some sort of funding to sample what's inside our hives. It's only by following the data that we'll get a clue on this (CCD), but so far the effort to collect data has been very limited," said David Mendes, vice president of the American Beekeeping Federation. Some scientists, including those looking at the issue for the U.S. government, believe that CCD is a result of multiple stresses on the bees, such as loss of habitat, drought and possibly chronic exposure to pesticides, that weaken the bees immune systems, subjecting them to untimely deaths from viruses and other infections.
But Mendes, among others, thinks the trigger could be more specific.
"I'm of the opinion that something is poisoning our bees," he said, explaining that more sampling of hives should reveal what is causing fundamental changes in bee behavior, such as the hallmark abandonment of hives that occurs with CCD.
Mendes says he and other beekeepers suspect that nicotine-based pesticides may be to blame because they act on the bees' nervous system, which could explain the changes in the bees feeding and homing behaviors that appear related to CCD.
These pesticides act differently than previous generations of contact pesticides because they are taken up "systemically" or internally by the plants' roots and leaves, and persist for longer in the soil and treated crops, he said.
Contaminated adult bees could be transferring these chemicals via affected pollen to their young, possibly inflicting neurological damage even at the larval stage, Mendes explained.
The Florida beekeeper, another beekeeper, David Godlin, and experts testifying before the subcommittee urged Congress to treat the matter with more urgency and allocate more funding to explore the pesticide connection, or any other explanations for CCD.
Clothianidin And Dead Bees
Over the last two years, bee keepers have lost hives at levels never before seen. U.S. beekeepers have lost a startling 35 percent of their colonies due to various causes since September 2007, according to government surveys conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Apiary Inspectors of America. The surveys didn't separate out the CCD losses from normal losses to diseases that affect bees. But all agree that CCD is responsible for the surge of bee deaths.
That current estimated 2007-2008 loss rate is up 10 percent compared to a similar survey conducted the year before, signaling a potential dire future.
"Not only is this an economic issue for beekeepers and farmers that depend on the bees for pollinations. This is an environmental problem,'' Mendes said. "The bees are the canary in the mine."
In May, Germany banned several neo-nicotinoid pesticides, including clothianidin, after the chemical drifted to canola fields from a corn-growing operation and apparently killed masses of bees. Officials attributed the problem to the misapplication of the pesticide-coated corn seed and the unusual timing of the corn being planted just as the canola was pollinating.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which approved the use of clothianidin in 2003, while also noting its toxicity to bees, is now researching the problem, a spokesman said.
As a result of the German incident, a leading bee expert is calling for a U.S. ban of clothianidin. Canadian geneticist Joe Cummins believes the pesticide needs further investigation and that farmers should start planting pesticide-free bee refuges now, and not wait for definitive answers on CCD, which might not come in time.
Mendes doesn't go so far as to endorse a return organic farming, but he does say the German ban should perk up ears in the United States, because the Germans are known for making science-based decisions.
He believes U.S. government's concept of safe thresholds are part of the problem because chemicals that are not "lethal" on contact to honeybees (or other pollinators) can obtain EPA approval, even though their longterm effect could be deadly.
Both sides of the debate over pesticides and whether they are to blame for CCD are deeply worried about food supplies. Cummins says the threat to food is too great to ignore.
Bayer CropScience, the global insecticide company and a maker of clothianidin and other neo-nicotinoids, cites the same concern, noting on its website that the German farmers using the pesticide were under state orders to take steps to fight the western corn rootworm which threatened corn crops.
The company maintains that that its pesticide is safe if applied correctly.
"We are saddened by the loss of the bees " said Dr. Richard Schmuck, a Bayer scientist, in a news release. But now authorities should work together to "improve application technology" for clothianidin so the ban can be lifted and innovative seed-treatment technology for safeguarding harvests can be made available to farmers again as quickly as possible."
More Birds and Bees
Food is where all sides converge in agreement and concern, and it's where the Pollinator Partnership enters the picture. The consortium wants to explain, well, the birds and the bees, to the American public.
They want the public to understand that bees, and other pollinators, are the sous chefs in the great natural kitchen. Without them, plants don't produce the bounty that we humans at the top of the food chain depend upon.
Take one for instance: Almonds and the bees that pollinate them (in fact, a certain variety of honey bee) have such a close symbiotic relationship that their survival is intertwined.
And that balance has already been upset. Declining bee populations and a shortage of traveling hives (due in part to CCD) to service growing acres of almond fields, have been hurt the almond crops for the past few years in California, said Pollinator Partnership spokeswoman Judith Hulka.
Replicate that problem around the world, in varying degrees, and you've got a serious threat to food production, especially when you factor in that 70 to 90 percent of plants rely on pollinators to reproduce.
"There's lots of evidence," Hulka said, "that all around the world there's a decline in pollinator species."
But the Pollinator Partership has a plan for how everyone can help. The group used its week in Washington to announce the "Plant for Pollinators" program, which enlists virtually everyone in the effort to revive the environment for pollinators.
"Plant for Pollinators" will roll out a series of 35 online guides designed to help people identify how to plant vegetation to protect and nurture these important insect, bird and mammals species.
The guides - aimed at everyone from farmers to city planners and backyard gardeners - are unlike any other publication because they go beyond just advocating native plants to explaining how people in specific regions of North America (US) can set up medians, parks, landscaped common areas and even their backyards to support pollinators, Hulka said.
"The idea is to match people with the natural habitat in which they live, which has different boundaries than anything they think about" she said
The guides, the first six of which were posted this week, should fill an information gap, in which the general public, barricaded in the "built environment" of offices and houses, has become disconnected from a close relationship with nature in their region, or has come to see nature as that narrow band of plants that have been inserted into planned landscapes.
" The large organizations that focus on saving land, and all the professional environmentalists, they know these things, they have nurseries that respect the nature environment , " Hulka explained. "But the average person doesn't understand that just because something will grow there, it doesn't necessarily contribute to the natural habitat."
People can learn from the guides, however, how to get in sync with the natural backdrop. For instance, residents of the Eastern Broadleaf Forest habitat - which covers parts of the Midwest from Tennessee through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri and parts of Wisconsin and Minnesota - could learn from their regional guide that the specific butterflies in their area (such as the Swallowtail, Skipper and White) feed on bright red and purple tubular flowers.
They (the butterflies not the flowers) also need areas of moisture and mud, and benefit from tasty snacks like rotting fruit.
"So don't clean up all the messes in your garden!" prompts the guide, which, like the others, has been informed by the scientific and ecological expertise of the members of the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign.
Getting in tune with nature requires such knowledge, and also, for homeowners, the will to change a landscape in ways that cut across the grain of standard mores. Many insects, birds and small mammals benefit from a wild area where they can breed, feed and cocoon, according to the habitat guides. So grooming down a suburban landscaping plan and leaving sections of parks and yards in a wild state is recommended.
"Resist the urge to have a totally manicured lawn and garden,'' advise the Broadleaf Forest guide. "Leave bare ground for ground-nesting bees. Leave areas of dead wood and leaf litter for other insects.''