Forget climate change – the bees are buzzing off

LAST UPDATED: 31 Mar, 2009 @ 09:41
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Forget climate change – the bees are buzzing off

If bees became extinct today, mankind would follow suit in 2012. Albert Einstein proclaimed this insect the most important factor in our food chain. As their numbers dwindle, BOB MADDOX believes we must refocus our attentions and save the humble bumble bee

“GOOD morning class. Today were are going to be looking at what may possibly prove to be the greatest threat facing humanity today. According to a small group of experts to whom nobody is listening, it could be just around the corner. Any guesses as to what it might be? Now hands down all those who think it is climate change. Hmm, more than three-quarters. Now all those who go for bird flu. OK, that has thinned things out a little. Aids? Hands down. Hmm, not too many left now. Ebola? An uprising of the undead? George W Bush? Nuclear War? Osama Bin Laden? No more hands left up I see.
“Well, it looks like I am going to have to tell you. It is… hold on. Is that one last little hand I see still up over there in the corner? And what is your name then?”
“Albert Einstein sir.”
“OK Albert. And what do you think it might be then?”
“Bees sir.”
“Go on Albert. Tell us how bees could possibly bring down the human race.”
“If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then Man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more life.”
outburst of sniggering
“Quiet! The rest of you can all stop laughing, because Albert is absolutely right! Well done boy. Keep this up and you could make a bit of a name for yourself in biology. What’s that you say Albert? Physics? No, stick to what you are good at, that is my advice.”

Well, it appears that Einstein’s (possibly apocryphal) quote may shortly be put to the test. For out there, as the World’s media focuses on spiralling food and energy prices, shrinking ice-caps and burning forests; a quieter and much deeper threat to our future may be taking shape. Few people have heard of it, still less appear to care and it is largely ignored by environmental organisations and governments worldwide.
While we panic over oil prices, weep over polar bears and waste our time nit-picking over the details of scientific evidence for global warming, countless millions of our little friends the honeybees are simply vanishing across the world in an epidemic known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) – an affliction which leaves no hives full of sick or dying bees; no piles of little furry black and yellow bodies to mourn over.
The bees are simple disappearing. Increasingly large numbers of those busy aerial pollinators are leaving for a day in the fields and simply failing to return home from work, leaving hives reminiscent of the Marie Celeste.

The United States, which is where CCD was first recognised and is assumed to have originated, has now lost at least a quarter of its estimated 2.6 million honeybee colonies. Today, CCD appears to be going pandemic, with serious outbreaks reported in Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Switzerland , the United Kingdom and here in Spain. And no one knows how or why. More alarmingly, environmental organisations and governments appear not to care particularly either.

So why are honey bees so important? And why do we take them so much for granted that we appear to be largely ignoring a real threat to their survival as a species?

Ignored threat

The answer to the first question is simple and direct. Honeybees form a critical part of the human food chain. With honeybees responsible for pollinating 80 per cent of our flowering crops, more than one-third of everything you and I consume has reached our tables courtesy of a pollinating honeybee.
Lose the Honeybee – lose the food chain.
And lest, from the cloistered security of our overstocked Saturday supermarket shopping trips, we should be in any doubt as to the potential consequences of this, we have only to look to the horrors of Ethiopia to see what can happen when a food chain collapses.

Which brings us to the question of why such a clear threat is largely going ignored. And here, it seems, we move into the strange and fickle world of human perceptions and emotions.
It is no secret that in the rich western world, our awareness of where our food really comes from and just how it gets to our tables has been declining for years.
We have become consumers and have adopted a mentality to match. Having long abandoned any attempt at getting our hands dirty in the vegetable garden, increasing numbers of us cannot now even be bothered to prepare and cook that which we pluck from the supermarket shelves, opting instead for so-called convenience foods and ready-meals.
So divorced have we become from this basic life-sustaining reality, that to an alarming number of our children, the term ‘Food Chain’ conjures up images of McDonald’s, Burger King and KFC.
And here lies the roots of a disturbing problem – a deep dislocation from the reality of our food production which comes with our modern industrial farming methods and our supermarket culture.
If food comes from Coviran and Mercadona, why worry about bees?
In this land flowing with milk and honey, too few of us seem to appreciate that you cannot simply lose the honey. The milk and much else which magically appears on our supermarket shelves, will go with it.

Food chain

Given the potential threat, why do we appear to be doing so little about it? Where are the major environmental groups and lobbyists? Where is the Al Gore of the Apian world? Well here, I fear, we may come down to the paltry fact that the plight of our honeybees is simply not the current haute coiture in the environmental world. Climate change and endangered mammals are currently hogging the environmental catwalk.

If you are in any doubt about this, then try finding an organisation that will allow you to sponsor an endangered invertebrate; no matter how critical they may be to the ecosystem, there are precious few organisations out there making a fuss on their behalf. Try buying a ‘Save The Earthworm!’ T shirt.
No such difficulties exist if you fancy sponsoring a mammal or even a vegetable. Tigers, pandas, other assorted bears, various apes, whales, dolphins, even trees – all up for adoption under the banner of conservation.
Worthy organisations such as the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and others clamour for our attention on a daily basis using images of mammals – usually mammals with nice eyes such as baby seals, or pandas.
These are powerful appeals to our anthropomorphic instincts and they work every time; for whereas the compound eyes of an insect may leave us cold, we see something of ourselves in those moist mammalian eyes. As a result, other equally endangered but less environmentally useful creatures figure far more highly in the heirarchy of our affections than do bees. Amy Winehouse, Gordon Brown and Ana Obregon spring to mind.
It is here that we may be making a disastrous error in our conservation strategy. For these mammals (ourselves included), may not be quite as important as we make them out to be.

Now, before my inbox becomes clogged with accusations of Mammalism, let me state up front that
some of my best friends are mammals. I even married one.
But this does nothing to change the fact that, in environmental terms, neither dolphins, nor whales, nor polar bears, nor seals are any more important than plankton. Nor are pandas, koala bears, tigers, or human beings any more important than grass.
In fact, it is perfectly arguable that they are less so.

For the truth of the matter is that the health and prosperity of each of these great mammals is inseparable from that of its lowliest counterpart in the vegetable kingdom.
In the oceans, the plankton sustains all else above it. On land, it is the green plants – especially the grasses. All life is inextricably linked from bottom to top in that complex and beautiful relationship which we call a Food Chain.
Never forget that when you eat a cow, you are merely eating grass, one step further up the pyramid. And for our terrestrial food chain to function, the flowering plants and grasses must be pollinated.

Getting lost

Which brings us back to bees. Why our bees are failing to return to the hive is, it seems, something of a mystery.
In a pandemic which has been dubbed Apian Flu and Mad Bee Disease, there is no shortage of suspects. Parasites, viruses, pesticides, climate change, GM crops and even radiation from mobile phones interfering with bee navigation. These have all been cited as the main culprit.
But without evidence, these remain simply theories.
And with environmental groups and governments looking elsewhere, they are likely to remain so for some time. With Climate Change hogging the environmental agenda, drowning polar bears are fashionable. Disappearing honeybees are not.

Could it be that by focusing our environmental attention on climate change and the higher mammals to the exclusion of so much else, we are in danger of ignoring a quiet crisis that threatens the very foundations of our food supply?
It is time to get things in perspective. Too many of our environmental priorities are based on emotion rather than reason. Witness the hysteria generated by a single Northern Bottlenose whale, lost up the Thames in 2006.
Millions of honeybees are losing their way every day and who cares? We should.
Bees are vanishing and they need our help. They have worked tirelessly in our fields and orchards for thousands of years. Now it time for us to get busy on their behalf.
Surely the last thing we should be doing is hanging about to see if yet another of Einstein’s theories proves to be correct.

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16 COMMENTS

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  1. Quite correct Maria, everything on the Planet is linked to everything else; we just do not understand this yet. Kill the planets ecosystems, and we kill ourselves.

    Corals supply more oxygen to the planet than plants and trees do – not a lot of people know that. They [corals] are already on the extinction list because of climate and sea warming.

    My own belief is that the climate is warming up, but that we have no proof that this is 100% man-made. For all we know, the warm-up may be normal for the planet, a cycle of its existence. Extinction is normal too of course; extinction happens all of the time; humans are next…

  2. Hello Maria!

    Firstly, Thank you for your interest in the article and please accept my apologies for not replying earlier. You are quite right (as Fred points out) to remind people that on our planet, no ecosystem is an island. Only relatively recently have we begun to realise the fantastic complexity of the links between all living things on Earth and the ways in which life and planet interact and affect each other.

    My intention was never to seperate the issues, but simply to draw attention to the urgency of the potential threat which CCD presents. Research suggests that Global Warming is a longer term threat (50 – 100 years)and projections of its effects are so wildly at variance that we find ourselves largely paralysed when it comes to taking effective action.

    By comparison, Colony Collapse Disorder is what American’s might define as ‘a clear and present danger’ requiring a swift response. My intention in using the phrase ‘forget climate change’ was to stir up interest and highlight the urgency of the matter…in your case it worked and again, I thank you for your interest. Maybe sometimes, we have to deal with issues one step at a time, even though they are essentially the same at heart. Unless we break the problem down into bite size pieces, politicians will continue to do what they do best and fudge the issue.

    So…from where I stand, the bees are first in line – if we lose our food supply, Global Warming becomes an issue for the insects. And by the way, Fred’s comment that ‘corals supply more oxygen than plants’ is misleading. It is actually the ocean’s phytoplankton which do that.

    Again, thanks for you interest.

    Best wishes,
    Bob.

  3. Perhaps humans should become exstinct after all look what we are doing? Mind you, not sure what the dinosurs were doing. Perhaps a new super organism will evolve, one that will be more environmentally friendly? or is that concept not not viable. All life forms consumes its environment one way or another.

  4. I donot understand the connection between bees and ebola but never mind.
    In the past 20 years it is proven that the earth is cooling down!
    But but it is a 100 biljon industri today who profits on the fals beliving that the earth are getting warmer.
    I suppose that this comments will be banned by Olive Press.

  5. kb: The real multi-billion industry to profit from lying about climate change is the fossil fuel conglomerate.
    What is this “proof” you speak of? Doubt if the O.P. would ban an honestly held opinion, even a mistaken one.

  6. stefanjo-
    Honey doesn’t “cure” viral infections. It interferes with virus’ ability to reproduce. If ebola virus’ spread through the body can be suppressed long enough, eventually humans’ immune system will control it, same as any viral infection. As for homeopathy, I don’t know about that, but I have my doubts.

  7. Are you maybe a doctor or pharmacist Rich? Where is the evidence for your very interesting assertions?
    You only have DOUBTS about Homeopathy?
    Save the bees of course, but it is their essential pollination services that we can’t do without, I’d take the antiviral properties of honey with a pinch of pollen though.

  8. stefanjo- No, I’m not a doctor or pharmacist. My knowledge about unprocessed honey comes from personal experiences of me and my friends, and what I’ve read. Before the advent of modern pharmacology, honey was widely used as an antibiotic to prevent a wide range of infections. Not only is honey anti-viral, it is also a potent and effective anti-bacterial that can cure MRSA, an antibiotic resistant strain of staph infection that originated in hospitals that overused antibiotics. Only 2 other antibiotics remain that can kill MRSA, vancomycin and BacTrim. There are new strains of MRSA which are resistant to these 2 drugs. As for honey’s anti-viral properties, honey can eliminate the symptoms of viral warts and herpes far more effectively than other treatments dermatologists use, such as aciclovir. I understand honey suppresses a virus’ ability to reproduce. I’ve never used bee pollen, but it would not surprise me if it too is effective. My experience with homeopathic remedies have been ineffective, but I don’t have enough knowledge or experience to say homeopathy is bunk.

  9. Rich: Sorry mate, utter bunk. I would recommend a close study of “Bad Science” by Ben Goldacre,paying particular attention to the importance of double-blind studies when testing the efficacy of medical/chemical substances on illness.

  10. Honey is now the best remedy for souring diabetici wounds, wich can not be healed with anything els, and amputation follows normally…..recent trials have shown that the honey reacts to body fluids, and forms the strongest anti biotica that we know….and the wounds heal..google it.
    Do you only accept “scientific “proof” from a medical world that wants to sell for profit ? ( see the docu of the dutch director of Pfizzer…and be amazed how that pharmaworld is like wallstreet….).

  11. stefanjo- “utter bunk”? Are you refering to homeopathy or honey? As for honey, I would have had my doubts too if I hadn’t observed the results first-hand for myself. I consider myself highly skeptical of all claims, including some of the most dire predictions of climate change/AGW, like the extinction of humans. I’m highly skeptical of doomsday scenarios from both the left and the right. In the face of irrefuted scientific evidence, I would put aside my doubts. As for Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Science”, does his book specifically deal with studies about honey? Just because something hasn’t undergone double-blind studies, doesn’t mean it false, just unproven. BTW, DHHS did a study of honey vs. aciclovir on oral herpes, and concluded honey was far more effective. Google it.

  12. I think you know what I’m referring to Rich. There is no particular harm in someone putting their faith in a placebo, in fact, the body is its own best friend where healing is concerned. But it can be dangerous to ignore that which science has proven, in favour of snake-oil.
    Fortunately, honey is fairly innocuous (apart from its high sugar content, dieters and diabetics beware!) so taken in conjunction with what the doctor ordered, no sweat.
    The danger comes when people are convinced of the properties of some “unproven” alternative and waste time health and money on it, perhaps missing a window of opportunity for healing.
    Luc: Not arguing with the (yet-to-be-proven) wound-dressing claims, but your pharmaceutical concerns are well-addressed in “Bad Pharma” also by Ben Goldacre (no relative!). Don’t know your native tongue, but, the Spanish translations of his de-bunking books are: “Mal Ciencia” and “Mal Farma” – “Bad Science” and “Bad Pharma”.

  13. stephanjo- Honey is not a placebo. Here’s the link to the honey vs. acyclovir study done by United States Department of Health and Human Services’ National Institute of Health “http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15278008” . Google different combinations of “honey acyclovir herpes MRSA wounds”. I have another story about doctors and pharmaceuticals. I developed a prostate condition that 3 successive unaffiliated doctors could not successfully treat. They were all convinced my condition was caused by an infection. I took numerous strong antibiotics in large quantities until I was blue in the face. My health insurance spent thousands of US dollars to no avail. It was my suggestion to the last doctor that my condition was NOT caused by an infection. He suggested I try a large dose of ibuprofen, and it worked. Had I not suggested that it wasn’t an infection, I’m convinced this doctor would have failed too. Not looking forward to taking high doses of ibuprofen for the rest of my life, I started researching my condition, and I discovered a natural herbal remedy called “saw palmetto”. It worked too, but it was harsh on my system and it too had to be taken regularly or the symptoms would return. Then I discovered another natural herbal remedy “small flowered willow herb”. One $15 (USD) bottle and I was cured. That was 30 years ago and symptoms never returned. If I waited for double-blind studies to prove the effectiveness of these natural remedies, I’d still be waiting. Pharmaceutical companies won’t fund studies of unpatentable natural remedies because there is little or no profit in finding $15 cures. I suggest you open your mind to the possibility that at least some scientifically unproven remedies are effective. (Since you spell favour with a “u” I’d guess you are either Canadian or British)

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