Honeybees' colony collapse disorder threatens our food supply

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[caption id="attachment_5252" align="alignright" width="150" caption="Dateline Earth trying to bee all we can bee. Photo courtesy pdphoto.org"]Dateline Earth trying to bee all we can bee. Photo courtesy pdphoto.org[/caption]

After bemoaning the loss of Gourmet magazine and its environmental reporting a few weeks ago, I found it encouraging to hear a pretty good enviornmental story over the weekend on the foodie-focused radio program The Splendid Table.

Host Lynn Rosetto Casper had on the show author and journalist Rowan Jacobsen, who was flogging his new book "Fruitless Fall: The Collapse of the Honeybee and the Coming Agricultural Crisis." (Jacobsen's tucked in way at the end if you don't want to listen to the rest of the show. But I'm warning you: About midway through Casper has some great ideas for using green tomatoes and apples with character, like winesaps, as savory side dishes.)

I was surprised to learn the colony collapse disorder, which we wrote about on several occasions when honeybees started dying en masse in 2007, is continuing to this day.

In fact, Jacobsen said about 31 percent of the commercial honeybees -- used to pollinate scads of American crops -- died over the autumn and winter of 2007 to 2008, and 37 percent of the remaining ones died over last fall and winter.

Having heard little about this recently, I assumed the problem was easing. But no. And researchers still aren't sure what is causing it. Some blame a pesticide. And there's also a new bee virus at work. (Mother Nature Network had a piece recently looking at how bees are being bred to fight the virus.)

But the smart money, Jacobsen says, is on the collision of a number of factors, including the fact that commercial honeybees are trucked all over the country, with as many as 400 hives in a single semi:

The people who believe it’s more of a systemic thing believe it’s just one more natural system -- it will be resilient to a certain point but then you hit the cliff and boom.

Recall the big whoop here is that bees, whether you care much about the insects or not, are responsible for pollinating so many of our crops. Jacobsen, noting that food prices already are escalating, says to watch almonds carefully, as they're likely to be the canary in the coal mine as this disaster spreads. Or doesn't.

There is hope, he said: It appears that the hives most at risk are those trucked all over the country. The smaller beekeepers who are working with organic farms and going easier on the bees are not nearly as affected, according to Jacobsen.

-- Robert McClure


CCD has proved to be a complex problem that seems to be a congruence of several factors including mono-culture agriculture, pesticide use, stress on bee hives from usual climate changes and additional stresses from management practices. There is a strong movement to increase the number of healthy bee hives by encouraging non-commercial beekeeping in more natural and less stressed environments. This has included creating hives away from agricultural areas so that fewer pesticides are introduced to the food chain. This also has the effect of creating a cleaner, less suspect honey for human consumption albeit in smaller quantities.